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A Trial Fit for Hollywood

A screenwriter-turned-consultant helped put a dramatic oratory sheen on the Alabama church bombing case.

May 10, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a Birmingham courtroom, Sarah Collins Rudolph described the last thing she saw on that Sunday morning 38 years ago. In the ladies' room of the 16th Street Church, her older sister Addie, 14, was tying a sash around the waist of 11-year-old Denise McNair. Then the world shattered into noise and pain and sudden darkness. Blind and terrified, 12-year-old Sarah cried out for her sister and was answered with terrible silence.

Eleven days ago, prosecutors in the case against Thomas E. Blanton Jr., the ex-Ku Klux Klansman accused in the deadly bombing of the 16th Street Church, called their last witness--Rudolph, the only survivor of the blast that killed her sister and McNair as well as Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, both 14.

Her voice was not loud, but in the held-breath silence of the courtroom, nothing else could be heard. With the image of a wounded girl calling out again and again for her dead sister, the prosecution rested. It was like a moment in a movie. And with very good reason--it had been orchestrated by a professional screenwriter.

Not the words; the words were Rudolph's own, and the power of the tragedy and all it stood for would stir emotions under any circumstance. But the fact that Rudolph, who is still blind in one eye, was the final witness and that her testimony ended with that horrifying image was the work of Neal Howard, a television writer who had recently made the unlikely cross-over to trial consultant.

A few days later, on what would have been Addie Collins' 52nd birthday, Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert Posey made his closing statements. "These children must not have died in vain," he told the jury. "Don't let the deafening blast of his bomb be what's left ringing in our ears."

That image, that sentiment, also came from Howard. The jury deliberated for 2 1/2 hours before declaring Blanton guilty.

"Every emotion you can imagine went through my body," says Doug Jones, the U.S. attorney who worked on the case from the moment he was sworn in four years ago. "But mainly it was relief that we were able to give those girls and their families the justice they deserved." Howard, he says, was enormously helpful in making their case. "He brought a passion to the case you could really feel, and he helped us use the passage of time to our benefit."

Time was just one of the obstacles the prosecution faced. Although Blanton had been one of four suspects during the original FBI investigation, the case had been aborted, the records sealed by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The discovery of tapes on which Blanton boasts about bombing churches allowed the government to reopen the case against him, but they were by no means perfect evidence. The tapes were old, the voices often distorted, and Blanton never directly confessed to the bombing. A key witness placing Blanton's car at the church the morning of the bombing had died, and Blanton's co-defendant, Frank Cherry, had been declared incompetent to face trial.

"This was a real building-block case," says Jones. "The jury was going to have to pay attention to every testimony. Neal gave me an example that I used in my opening--that just as the church was rebuilt brick by brick, so were we going to rebuild this case. A lot of people told me how effective that was."

Howard also helped Jones and Posey directly use the passage of time to their advantage. "I told the jury right off how the passage of time helped the defendant," Jones says. "How he counted on it, how he counted on memory blurring, witnesses dying, on his own aging. Neal gave me a list, and it was very effective."

"From a writer's standpoint, those years were a benefit," says Howard. "Thirty-eight years without justice. That is very dramatic. Sarah's words were very dramatic. I know enough to open big and end big."

Inspired by Lawyers' Lack of Passion

Howard, a lanky 42-year-old who looks the part of a screenwriter, with de rigueur mini-specs and nervous energy, divides his time between Los Angeles and Atlanta. He came to the growing field of trial consulting out of frustration. While watching the various hearings in last year's election recount process, he says, he was shocked at how badly the lawyers presented their cases.

"They were just terrible," he says. "They missed the whole point of arguing principles. They got hung up on boring details. They lacked passion."

A jury's perception of how a trial should proceed, he says, echoing many legal experts, is, for better or worse, based on what the members see on TV and in the movies. And lawyers need to recognize that.

"Some lawyers may be great orators," he says, "but many are terrible writers. They need help."

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