In a trial of Hollywood film makers, perhaps it is only fitting that their seven-man defense team would be compared to the cast of a current box office smash.
"We're like 'Platoon'--all these different types brought together from different parts of the country to fight for a cause," said Arnold L. Klein, who represents special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart in the "Twilight Zone" involuntary manslaughter trial.
While the jury has yet to decide how just that cause is, there is no question that Stewart, director John Landis and three film-making associates are represented by a diverse array of attorneys who include:
- James Neal, a gentlemanly, cigar-chomping Nashville barrister who rose to national fame prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa and Richard Nixon's White House aides. He represents Landis.
- Harland Braun, a witty but acerbic Westside lawyer who has publicly referred to the prosecutor in the case as "scum." Braun represents associate producer George Folsey.
- Eugene Trope, a white-goateed, 69-year-old civil attorney who has tried only a handful of criminal cases in his 41-year career. He represents helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo.
Rounding out the defense team are Leonard Levine, a shrewd courtroom presence who represents unit production coordinator Dan Allingham; Klein, an emotional, tousle-haired attorney who, along with Levine and Braun, formerly served in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office; James Sanders, Neal's genial, hard-working Nashville co-counsel, and William Anderson, Trope's partner, who has spoken only twice in the courtroom since the trial began last September.
Together, the septet is engaged in a drawn-out struggle against the people of California, represented by Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino, a relentless foe known to her enemies as the "Dragon Lady."
But despite their superior courtroom manpower, they face a tough battle in persuading a Superior Court jury that the five film makers were not criminally negligent in the 1982 film set deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors. Not only did the children, Renee Chen, 6, and Myca Dinh Lee, 7, die gruesome deaths when struck by a helicopter during the shooting of a mock Vietnam battle scene, but the defense admits that the two youngsters were hired illegally by the film makers.
What's more, each defense lawyer realizes that the enemy could at any time spring forth from within, due to the inevitable frictions that result in such a lengthy proceeding. Indeed, some have interrupted their broadsides at D'Agostino in order to take potshots at each other.
Klein once remarked that Trope, who represents helicopter pilot Wingo, "jumps without a parachute" in his courtroom maneuvers. Others have light-heartedly sniped back at Klein, suggesting that the 44-year-old Buffalo native has himself been known to jump with little more than a parasol.
Disputes in strategy have also arisen, as might be expected in a situation where each attorney must look out for his own client's best interest.
Trope, for instance, acknowledged that his fellow attorneys, particularly Neal, tried to convince him not to put Wingo on the witness stand last week. Trope ignored the advice, but his client, who returns to the stand Monday, has not, at least yet, told the jury anything that would severely damage the case of Landis or his co-defendants.
By and large, as the trial sluggishly draws toward a conclusion, the defense team has come across more as a repertory company than as a star vehicle, even with a national notable such as Neal.
Without question, one of the biggest surprises of the trial, which has had more than its share of bizarre twists, has been the Tennessee native's subdued role as a member of what Klein has termed "a loose confederation" of defense lawyers.
Hired in 1985 to replace Braun in representing Landis, Neal, a former Watergate prosecutor, has received praise for his cross-examination of key witnesses such as special-effects man James Camomile--whom the defense blames for the tragedy--and in examining his own star witness, Landis.
Otherwise, Neal, 57, has allowed his partner to handle a good deal of the load. Consequently, some of Neal's fellow attorneys have grumbled behind the scenes that the out-of-town "hired gun" has proven a disappointment.
"I haven't learned anything from him except how to pause five minutes between questions," Braun said.
Neal, a proud, one-time Marine captain, retorted that he is in a no-win situation.
"It appeared to me early on if I tried to be some sort of super-gun in this case, where most of the counsel are very competent, that would be counterproductive," he explained. "No one really likes to try a case with multiple defendants. Everyone, to avoid a disaster, has to modify his style. Everyone. So I have tried to pick my spots."