Topic: Professionals & Institutions

Perry Mason Lives!

The manslaughter trial of former NBA star Jayson Williams, now taking place in New Jersey, has been overshadowed by the glut of the trials of more famous glitterati, like Martha, Michael, and Kobe. But the antics of defense attorney Billy Martin have brought back memories of Perry Mason, and not in a good way. Perry, you see, was a slime ball, at least in the Earle Stanley Gardner mysteries that initially made him famous. He hid evidence, put his employees up to outrageous deceptions and used forbidden courtroom tactics, all supposedly justified by the eventual acquittals of his always innocent clients.

Perry would have been disbarred in a New York minute, to be blunt. Now tales of the Williams trail are rivaling Perry Mason cases for lawyer ethics at their worst.

Williams, perhaps you recall, stands accused of killing his chauffer with a shotgun. Martin put on an expert witness, Richard Ernest, who testified that the event was “an accident waiting to happen,” because tiny wood chips imbedded in the firing mechanism could make the gun go off by itself. This was Perry Tactic 1. How so? Because it took cross examination to reveal that Ernest had himself been unable to get a shotgun to misfire, even after carefully placing wood chips in the mechanism of a gun resembling the one that Williams fired. Martin’s using Ernest’s testimony violates the attorney ethics rule against introducing false evidence. Ernest had a theory, he tested it, and it didn’t work. He can’t go on the stand and say that in his expert opinion the chips could have caused the misfire when his own tests won’t bear him out. Experts are supposed to testify to what scientific tests show, not what they don’t show.

WaitÂ…it gets worse. Here comes Perry Tactic 2. Because Ernest’s real tests didn’t back up his theories, Martin hired a computer animation firm to produce a simulation showing how chips could make a shotgun misfire. That is, an animated shotgun. (Columnist Jay Bryant’s comment: “Where the heck do they think this trial is being held, Toontown?”) The judge finally roused himself to bar this demonstration, ruling that the animation could only be used to show how the theoretical microscopic chips could wedge themselves in the firing mechanism and cause the theoretical misfire, but that it couldn’t portray the misfire itself.

This was more than Ernest or Martin deserved, but in a stratagem that would have made Della Street swoon, when the demonstration was run, Martin’s technician “accidentally” clicked on the wrong file. The animated wood-chip fouled shotgun went off with a loud bang.

“Oops!” said the technician.

“Mistrial!” screamed the Prosecutor.

“Jury, disregard what you just saw!” intoned the judge.

“Heh! Heh! Heh!” chuckled Martin.

The animated gun went off by accident! Just like Ernest said it would!

Lawyers are ethically required to represent their clients with zeal, creativity and determination. This display, however, is a textbook example of warped legal ethics.

And unless Williams is convicted and Martin is disciplined by the bar, Martin will only enhance his reputation, and lesser attorneys (for Martin is a very skilled attorney indeed) will try to emulate his trickery. This is how a profession’s ethics go down the slippery slope. Let us hope that the New Jersey Bar is ready to make a clear statement that Perry Mason is not a proper role model.

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