People will say anything in a courtroom and now it's available in print

December 08, 1991|By New York Times News Service

Judges say the darnedest things.

So do lawyers. And witnesses. And jurors -- and just about anyone in the courtroom.

That is the message of three California lawyers who have been poring over reams of courtroom transcripts to cull some of the most ridiculous moments in American legal history.

Pity the lawyer, for example, left to ponder this exchange with a potential juror in an Alabama death penalty case:

COUNSEL: Can you participate in an endeavor in which the ultimate result might be death by lethal injection?

JUROR: They do that up in Huntsville, don't they? Yeah, I guess I could do it if it was on a weekend.

This is one of thousands of courtroom exchanges collected by Rodney R. Jones, a lawyer in Fort Bragg, Calif., who is co-editor of two recently published volumes of transcripts that document absurd moments in the courtroom.

"It all started out as a hobby, keeping clipping files that grew for 20 years, but now it's become a not-so-solemn responsibility," Mr. Jones said. "Since we began publishing these things, we've been getting so many contributions from lawyers all over the country and abroad that we're fast becoming the unofficial historians of courtroom humor."

Charles M. Sevilla, a San Diego lawyer, and Gerald F. Uelmen, dean of the University of Santa Clara law school, help Mr. Jones chronicle what they call "fragments from the refuse of our litigation explosion."

"Trials provide great moments of spontaneous humor," Mr. Jones said, "and the wit in appellate decisions, while more deliberate and premeditated, often shows literary flair."

Four years ago, Mr. Jones and his colleagues tried to persuade literary agents and publishers that it was high time to put out a collection of courtroom transcripts.

After many rejections, they finally succeeded when editors at W. W. Norton & Co. decided to take a chance on their idea. A hard-cover collection, "Disorderly Conduct: Verbatim Excerpts From Actual Court Cases," was published in 1987.

The volume sold enough copies to generate a paperback edition -- and a blizzard of new material from lawyers and judges.

Last year, Mr. Jones and Mr. Uelmen issued a sequel, "Supreme Folly," also published by Norton. Their earlier collaborator on "Disorderly Conduct," Mr. Sevilla, is coming out with his own sequel this fall.

Mr. Jones and his colleagues provide case citations to verify the authenticity of the transcripts, which are organized under such headings as "Frivolous Questions," "Accident Reports," "Leading Questions" and "Creative Defenses."

Many of the transcripts involve exchanges with the judge:

COUNSEL: I respectfully disagree with the court.

THE COURT: Well, you have your right to disagree, but we have disagreed before and I certainly disagree with you now. The record is probably as long as you are tall with statements that have been made by you.

COUNSEL: The record should reflect that I am short, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Well, the record may also reflect that my patience with you has about reached the point of your height.

Or, from a California case:

DEFENDANT: As God is my judge, I didn't do it. I'm not guilty.

JUDGE: He isn't, I am. You did. You are.

Others, such as the following, involve the questioning of potential jurors:

COUNSEL: Can you tell us that you would follow the court's instructions regardless of what else happened for you during the course of the trial?

JUROR: Cognitively, yes. Rationally, yes. Emotionally, effectively, I don't know. Or perhaps effectively, yes, and rationally, no.

A number of excerpts are drawn from the testimony of witnesses in car accident cases ("I pulled away from the side of the road, looked at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment").

Then there are the floundering interrogations of witnesses:

COUNSEL: Was there some event, Valerie, that occurred which kind of finally made you determined that you had to separate from your husband?

WITNESS: Yes.

COUNSEL: Did he try to do something to you?

WITNESS: Yes.

COUNSEL: What did he do?

WITNESS: Well, uh, he tried to kill me.

COUNSEL: All right. And then you felt that that was the last straw, is that correct?

Or along similar lines, the lawyer who questioned a coroner about an autopsy:

COUNSEL: Do you recall approximately the time that you examined the body of Mr. Edgington at the Rose Chapel?

WITNESS: It was in the evening. The autopsy started about 8:30 p.m.

COUNSEL: And Mr. Edgington was dead at that time, is that correct?

No attempt to catalog courtroom folly would be complete without malapropisms, like this one from a witness describing how he was beaten: "Then he repeated the blows the second time, right to left side of face, left to right side. You know -- the defendant is one of those guys who is amphibious."

Another category is the unexpected answer by a witness. "This is every trial lawyer's nightmare," Mr. Sevilla said. "The old saw is that you never ask a question if you don't know how the witness is going to answer, but it happens all the time."

He offered as an example a plaintiff's lawyer who was questioning his own client in a personal-injury case:

PLAINTIFF'S LAWYER: What doctor treated you for the injuries you sustained while at work?

PLAINTIFF: Dr. J [name omitted].

PLAINTIFF'S LAWYER: And what kind of physician is Dr. J?

PLAINTIFF: Well, I'm not sure, but I remember you said he was a good plaintiff's doctor.

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