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LADIES AND GENTLEMAN OF THE JURY: Greatest Closing Arguments in Modern Law.\o7 Edited by Michael S. Lief, H. Mitchell Caldwell and Ben Bycel (Scribner: 400 pp., $26)\f7

July 12, 1998|DON FRANZEN | Don Franzen is an entertainment attorney whose practice has included trial and appellate work in federal and state courts

Closing argument--the final opportunity given lawyers to sum up the evidence and discuss the law before the case is submitted to the jury--is high drama, in both real and fictional courtrooms. Whether it is Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch or Joe Pesci's Vinnie LaGuardia Gambini, the image of the lawyer pacing before the jury box in a final effort to persuade 12 peers has come to epitomize the courtroom. Surprisingly, no collection of closing arguments has been previously available in print. For that reason, the efforts of the editors of "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury," who have collected 10 famous arguments, selected not so much for the cases' notoriety as for the skill of the advocate, is especially welcome. Lawyers and nonlawyers will enjoy the passion and eloquence of these counselors; practitioners of law will find much to learn from them.

"Ladies and Gentleman of the Jury" was edited by Michael S. Lief, a practicing California deputy district attorney; H. Mitchell Caldwell, a Pepperdine law professor; and Ben Bycel, the dean of the University of West Los Angeles School of Law. Four of the 10 cases chosen are California cases, evidence that our state is not only the entertainment but also the litigation capital of the world. Two of the cases leap directly from tabloid headlines: Vincent Bugliosi's final argument in the Tate-La Bianca multiple murder trial and Donald Re's closing in the John DeLorean drug case. Less well known are the other two California cases, both dating from earlier times in the state's legal history.

Clarence Darrow, called by the editors "the greatest American trial lawyer," argued in his own defense when he stood trial in 1912 in Los Angeles for allegedly tampering with a witness. Darrow's eight-hour summation played to a packed courtroom and, the editors tell us, proved so effective that the jury as well as the judge eventually broke into tears. Darrow was acquitted. Darrow is represented twice in the collection, the second time for his famous argument that saved the lives of the teenage murderers Leopold and Loeb. His argument stands as among the classic pleas against capital punishment.

One woman is represented in the volume, Clara Shortridge Foltz, who in 1878 became the first woman to be admitted to the bar as a lawyer in California. Mother of five children, abandoned by her husband, she studied law while supporting her family. The State Supreme Court refused her admission to the bar (despite the fact that she had passed the bar exam) and required her to take a specially prepared exam, which she also passed. Foltz practiced law in the face of sneering insults from her male colleagues. Her wit served her well in this struggle; when an opposing attorney contemptuously referred to her throughout a trial as "a lady lawyer," Foltz answered she could not return the compliment, for she "never heard anybody call him any kind of lawyer at all." Her client, an immigrant accused of arson, was acquitted by a jury that did not even leave the box to deliberate.

While one is grateful to see the neglected legal career of Clara Foltz represented, it must be asked if only one woman in modern legal history satisfies the criterion of stellar advocacy for inclusion in this collection. For the rest of this volume, it's a man's world. Justice Robert H. Jackson's eloquent summation of the case against the Nuremberg war criminals opens the book. William Kunstler's closing argument in the Chicago 7 trial is represented, as is Gerry Spence's plea for justice in the Karen Silkwood case.

The subject of a recent movie, "Ghosts of Mississippi," the retrial of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, who was found guilty 30 years after the fact of the assassination of Medgar Evers, provides an insight into the profound changes in the soul of the American Southern jury. There is no statute of limitations for murder in Mississippi, so that district attorney Bobby DeLaughter was able, three decades after the fact, to prosecute De La Beckwith after two all-white, all-male juries had previously failed to reach a verdict. The jury that finally found De La Beckwith guilty was representative of the New South, evidence that the administration of our system of laws throughout the jury system depends on the underlying culture of the community.

In a grisly recapitulation of the themes of the Nuremberg tribunal, the concluding selection provides the chilling narration of Capt. Aubrey Daniel in the court-martial of Army Lt. William Calley stemming from the My Lai massacre, perhaps the most grisly memory of the Vietnam War, in which (by the allegation of Calley's accusers) an entire village of Vietnamese civilians was slaughtered.

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