Will John Edwards go to the pen?
May 4, 2012
Earlier this week, I read a long story from the New York Times News Service about the trial of former North Carolina Senator and presidential wannabe John Edwards on charges of violations of campaign finance charges. The trial is in full swing in federal court in Greensboro, North Carolina.
On Fridays, we talk about legal fiction writing and this trial brings up a big point that an author should not ignore.
In my more than a quarter century of practicing law, I have on occasion handled cases that received coverage in various media. Whenever I have read the accounts of the trial in the paper or heard them reported on TV, I have been amazed at the disconnect between what happened in the courtroom and what was reported about it.
What happens in a courtroom is all about instinct and informed guesses. It is about the impression a witness makes on the the stand, not the words he or she speaks.
My point here is that antiseptic reports about what someone said in court in no way convey the heart of the testimony or provide insight into how a jury may respond.
Gerry Spence, the famous trial lawyer from Wyoming, tells about a tactic he used when he represented Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos. You will remember that the government used a picture of Ms. Marcos’ closet as a key exhibit in its case. The picture showed a thousand pair of shoes in that closet and appeared to send a clear message that Ms. Marcos wallowed in affluence, totally immune to the rampant poverty of the citizenry of the country she ruled.
Sounds like a pretty strong bit of evidence, doesn’t it?
Not after Spence took a swing at it from the other side. Come to find out, in Filipino society people gifted pairs of shoes to persons they loved and respected. In that society, a thousand pairs of shoes was a sign that people admired the First Lady.
This is the sort of twist that makes great courtroom drama and turns a case on its head.
The same is true with the hot coffee case. What made the jury mad enough to award a big verdict of damages was the McDonald’s corporate witness who took the stand and testified that the injuries to the plaintiff, injuries so severe that they required reconstructive surgery of her private parts, were “statistically inconsequential” to McDonald’s. If the same witness had said he was sorry for the injuries the plaintiff received, I am sure the outcome of the trial would have been altogether different.
So, when you write your legal thriller, include a character who reports on the case. Make his reports as different as night is from day about the facts and have the reporter ignore the important things like human emotions and a playground sense of justice.
So, will John Edwards go to the pen? I have no idea. But remember what Will Rogers said. He said he never believed anything he read in the papers.