In the End, It's Who Tells the Best Story

Writer’s Tip: A good courtroom drama is not unlike a good book. In fact, a lot of memorable books have had unforgettable courtroom scenes. A Time to Kill and To Kill a Mockingbird come immediately to mind. It’s important to set a scene so intense that readers can virtually taste the suffocating emotion tied to the case. The characters must be finely drawn. Readers must understand the importance of both attorneys even if one has flaws. The little guy might be outmanned, but with enough guts, he still has a fighting a chance. Just like a book, the courtroom drama doesn’t always hinge on the facts of a case. The winner is usually the attorney who keeps the jury on edge and, in the grand finale, tells the best story.

George Graham Vest

George Graham Vest and adversity were no strangers to each other. They had met before and would meet again but never in a trial like this one was destined to be. Vest had fought a few wars before, but now he was sitting in the dim light of a dark room and wondering how in God’s great name he would be able to save the reputation of his client.

It was a case unlike any he had ever witnessed before, the kind he might never see again. The fragile and precious integrity of a client named Drum was at stake. The attorney closed his eyes and rubbed his temples with the tips of his fingers. A dull ache kept boring into the back of his head. He knew that he had neither statutes nor precedence on his side, and the heavy odds against him were growing stronger with each passing hour.

He would not formulate his case until he walked into the courtroom By then, it might be too late.

George Graham Vest was a lifelong politician who had served as a senator in the Confederate Congress and as U.S. Senator when the storm clouds of war finally faded from the landscape. He was a dashing and distinguished figure in Kentucky, and, as an attorney, he handled only the cases of utmost importance.

His client was a farm dog, Old Drum, a pet really, that had been shot dead by Leonides Hornsby, allegedly for killing sheep. Couldn’t prove it. Had his suspicions. Had a rifle. Took it down. Took a shot. Did not regret it. Did not deny it.

Old Drum’s owner, Charles Burden, without hesitation, retained George Graham Vest as counsel in his suit for damages. Old Drum had been a good dog. A faithful dog. A constant companion. A family pet. A great loss.

Frances M. Cockerell

A sense of anger worked its way through Leonides Hornsby. He bowed his back, straightened his shoulders, and prepared for war. If Burden wanted to fight, Hornsby was ready to roll up his sleeves, spit on his fists, and meet Old Drum’s owner any place at any time. In a back alley, or on main street, on the farm, or in a court room. They could settle their dispute with fists, pistols, long knives, log chains, or attorneys. It did not make him any difference. A bitter Leonides Hornsby promptly hired the renowned and dignified Francis M. Cockrell, a sitting United States Senator, to defend him.

All of Kentucky sat back to watch the two statesmen duel with a slam-bang, no-holds-barred whirlwind of words and emotions before a scowling, black-robed referee who happened to look a lot like a judge.

Senator Cockrell was not concerned, which meant that Leonides Hornsby was not worried either. He was competent. He was efficient. He knew the facts. And he carefully placed them before the court in a cold, methodical, convincing, and no-nonsense manner.

He had all of the facts on his side, he said. His client owned a farm. He raised sheep. A dog trespassed on Hornsby’s land. Sheep died. Profits were lost. The dog needed killing. His client obliged. His client only did what any other self-respecting farmer would do when facing the sudden demise of his livelihood by a marauding dog. The shooting was entirely justifiable. He nodded to the judge, walked stiffly to his chair, and sat down.

All eyes turned to George Graham Vest.

He made no effort to deny any of the facts that his opponent had presented in court. He called no witnesses. He cited no legal precedents. He presented no legal argument. He did not rant, nor rave. George Graham Vest simply stood before the jury and – with a calm voice – offered quiet, gentle eulogy to a dog. He said:

“Gentlemen of the Jury, the best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful.

“Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith.  The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps, in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

Ode to a Good Dog

“The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog. A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer.

“He will lick the wounds and sores that come when his master encounters the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert him, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun its journey through the heavens.

“If fortune drives the master forth as an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies.

“And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid away, there by the graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad, but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.”

Silence gripped the courtroom as Senator George Graham Vest quietly sat down. The silence lingered. Unexpectedly, a wild storm of applause erupted in the courtroom. Not even the good judge could gavel it away. He tried. Once. Then again.  He hammered the gavel with supreme authority. No one heard. If they heard, no one cared. People cheered. And people wept.

The jury reached a decision quickly, and it was unanimous. George Graham Vest, like no other, had defended the dignity, the honor, the loyalty of a dog.

Charles Burden had lost a dog.

Leonides Hornsby must pay.

Legally, he might be justified, but Leonides Hornsby had to pay. He had taken the life of a good and faithful dog, a good and faithful pet. The jury would have been more lenient if he had taken the life of Charles Burden.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of the Christian thriller, Golgotha Connection.

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