The Chamber is a 1996 legal drama taken from the novel of the same name by John Grisham.
10 out of 10 stars. If you can stomach it, this is an excellent film that reveals that innocence doesn’t matter, just what the District Attorney and Governor can spin into looking like reality.
This is a work of fiction.
April 1967, Indianola, Mississippi: A bomb explodes inside Marvin Kramer’s law office with Kramer and his two little boys inside the day after his wife’s birthday. The KKK take credit and march in a parade outside the cemetery during the boys’ funeral. Kramer is still alive but with both legs and an arm amputated. He is so traumatized he kills himself a few months later.
Sam Cayhall is arrested, tried, and convicted of the bombing and the boys’ murders. He’s given the death penalty.
1996 Chicago: Sam Cayhall’s time is up. He’s exhausted all of his appeals and the governor, who got elected to governor by prosecuting Cayhall as the District Attorney, has fast-tracked Cayhall to the gas chamber. He has 30 days left. A young lawyer named Adam Hall in the law firm that represents Cayhall wants to handle his case. He’s Cayhall’s grandson. The family was so hated they changed their last name to Hall and moved away from Indianola. His boss gives him the assignment.
On his way to Mississippi State Pen, Adam stops at his aunt’s home in Jackson, Mississippi. Aunt Lee married rich and has become a socialite. She looks very much like Dolly Parton. She warns Adam not to dredge up the past. He does anyway and the next day the papers’ headlines are that she is none other than Sam Cayhall’s daughter. She begins drinking again.
Adam’s motivation for defending Sam becomes clear upon their first meeting. Adam’s dad, Sam’s son Eddie, killed himself after Sam was convicted. He did it so Adam would find him then left a note for how Adam should clean the crime scene so his mother wouldn’t be traumatized. Adam was a child at the time. It scarred him for life.
Over the course of their first few visits, Adam learns that Sam is protecting someone, the real killer. Sam planted six bombs but none of them were supposed to hurt anyone. They were all supposed to go off in empty buildings. They watched their victims closely and knew their schedules quite well. But the bomb maker rigged the Kramer bomb to go off late, when Kramer was in his office. Sam was tried twice and both times there was a hung jury, so the District Attorney David McAllister (who is now the governor) tried him a third time and suppressed most of the evidence in Sam’s defense. That’s how he got a conviction.
In 1984, Mississippi changed the method of death penalty to lethal injection, admitting the gas chamber was inhumane. Since Sam was sentenced in 1980, it doesn’t apply to him, but that they admitted it was barbaric is Adam’s strategy in getting the Supreme Court to stay the execution. He loses.
A young pretty woman named Nora Stark begins “helping” Adam. She claims that McAllister wants to pardon Sam, but needs a legitimate reason to do so. That’s a lie. He wants him dead, the exact opposite, but he also wants to find out which of his peers in government are KKK members by unsealing the records of the all white state commission who gave the bombing orders: the Mississippi State Sovereignty, which is actually a KKK organization within the state government. Then he can use that information to blackmail them.
When attempt after attempt to uncover evidence to help Sam fails, Adam resorts to questioning his Aunt Lee. So she takes him to their old house, the house where she and Adam’s dad Eddie grew up and tells him the real reason his dad killed himself. There was a black man who did odd jobs for Sam. His name was Joe. Joe had a son Quince who used to play with Eddie all the time. Lee usually climbed the tree and watched them play. One day Quince and Eddie got into a fight. Sam hit Quince and Quince went to get his dad, Joe. When Joe came, Sam beat him with a rake and sent Eddie inside for his shotgun. Then he killed Joe in cold blood. Sam was never arrested because in Mississippi white people killed black people all the time. But Lee witnessed it and was forever traumatized. And Eddie blamed himself for causing the fight and getting the shotgun.
Eventually Adam and Nora break into the Mississippi State Sovereignty’s office and get their records. They’re all KKK and on the state payroll, but giving orders for murders. The order for the Kramer bombing was given to R.W. by a vote of 9 for and 2 against. And Nora gives the governor a list of the KKK members in state government.
Adam’s last appeal is declaring “mitigating circumstances” because Sam was indoctrinated into the KKK from birth. At age 10 Sam was taken to his third KKK rally where they hanged two innocent black men. A photo of Sam in front of the hanged men at that rally was in a history book Lee showed Adam. That appeal is also denied.
That night the FBI agent who investigated the case shows up at Adam’s apartment. So far, he hasn’t been helpful, but seeing that Adam’s out of hope, he tells him who R.W. is–Rollie Wedge. In 1967, a dishwasher saw Rollie at a diner the night before the bombing right across the street. Rollie was one of the most vicious KKK members.
There’s a big KKK reunion on the even of Sam’s execution. Adam goes there in a desperate attempt to find Rollie Wedge. He finds him but is almost killed. Rollie is Sam’s older brother (real name Donny Cayhall) and hated Eddie, Adam’s father. Although he stops Adam from being beaten to death, he then almost shoots his ear off. Adam stumbles away and goes to the governor with a photo of Rollie Wedge. Then the governor’s real agenda becomes clear.
Meanwhile Donny Cayhall (aka Ronnie Wedge) goes to visit Sam and tells him if he mentions his name, Donny will kill Adam. This infuriates Sam who finally signs the request to unseal the Mississippi State Sovereignty’s files. Adam gets the files unsealed so they can be used in court, but the governor calls everyone on the voting panel and tells them their names are mentioned in the unsealed report. So they all vote to execute Sam. And McAllister arrests Donny Cayhall and uses that arrest to get reelected.
10 out of 10 stars. Not all of John Grisham’s stories are good. I suspect it’s because he started using a ghostwriter. But almost all of them point out the flaws in the American judicial system. Before Grisham became a novelist, he was a lawyer. If politicians couldn’t accept money and couldn’t run for reelection, most of those injustices would disappear.