The American historian, Henry Adams, once said in a posthumously-published memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” We teachers and former teachers often use this quote to remind us of why we chose our path through life. But every now and then we are reminded that there may actually be some truth in the Adams’ quote.
As a government teacher at the very new Weston High School in Weston, CT, one of my favorite annual rituals was to give my students a hands-on taste of the world of trial law. When dealing with energetic ninth graders this is no small challenge unless the exercise is scripted. The dilemma is that a script may take away the opportunity for the kids to inject some of themselves into the exercise. So here is what we did.
One day, during our unit on American justice, as class began the students were told to put down their books and imagine that they were in a small town jail and that they were a member of the local police force. “You had been invited to interrogate a new prisoner who had just been arrested on suspicion of first degree murder.” Upon entering the cell, the prisoner who seemed normal enough appeared eager to share something with you. You asked politely, “So tell me. What happened?” To your surprise, the prisoner began to recount the events of the recent past. At that point, I opened a book and turned to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart. The class was told that it was a verbatim account of the story the prisoner had shared with you, the police officer. It was a tale of murder and a strange sort of bravado that slowly began to dissolve under the weight of sheer madness and a sense of inescapable guilt that culminated in a final mea culpa outburst during which the suspect tore open some floor boards under the very chair upon which he had been sitting while calmly chatting with the police during the time prior to his arrest. There, between the floor joists, were the cold, gruesome remains of his victim. Every detail was shared with the policeman in the jail and it looked like an open-and-shut case complete with a full confession.
But one thing was missing. It turns out that the students playing the part of the interrogating policeman in the jail cell had failed to first “Mirandize” the perpetrator and so when the time came for the arraignment, the alleged killer on the advice of his attorney, pleaded “not guilty” knowing that his confession could not be used in court. It was on that basis, with the facts, timing and events pretty well known and defined by the inadmissible “confession” that the class now had to create the “trial of the century” in Room 72. Every member of the class had a role, the judge, the attorneys both for the prosecution and defense, the witnesses and the jury along with a couple of court officials. Room 72 was transformed into a courtroom and the trial was set to begin the following week. Over the next two weeks or so, the legal proceedings unfolded. Examinations and cross examinations were the order of the day; arguments were made; evidence was presented; summation and closing arguments were passionately delivered and the case was sent to the jury who deliberated in full public view so that everyone could evaluate the quality of the evidence and the case for both sides. During the trial Room 72 was always open for visitors from other classes or students and faculty who may have had an open period or study hall. The place was usually quite full with standing room only the order of the day.
Over the years no two classes were ever the same. There were new wrinkles and interesting arguments but because of the known events from the inadmissible confession, the story kept things pretty much on target where the chance of a surprise was actually fairly minimal despite a somewhat lax attention to pre-trial depositions and discovery. One creative student for the defense enlisted the school principal to serve as an ersatz character witness for the accused. Another recruited his father, a practicing clinical psychologist, to testify as to the the defendant’s sanity. He actually received some pretty harsh cross examination from a very aggressive student prosecutor. After doing this for about 8 years and involving more than thirty different classes, the outcomes often resulted in a guilty verdict although almost without exception each of those verdicts was preceded with long and emotional confrontations in the jury room.
During the trial my role was simple. I was little more than an interested, non-participating onlooker. One year, a reported from the local newspaper, The Westport News, covered the trial for a day. The skill and intensity of the students was quite impressive and as a teacher I felt that maybe I had done something important and enduring, an outcome that is at the top of every teacher’s wish list.
Recently, there was a decision in a very high profile case involving Brian Stow, an avid San Francisco Giants fan, the former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Frank McCourt, and the Dodgers organization. The case focused on a brutal beating Stow received outside Dodger Stadium by some Dodger loyalists who took exception to a Giants fan in their midst. Stow was physically assaulted in full view of his family and suffered serious, permanent disability involving a traumatic injury to his brain. His life was changed forever. The case went to trial and the jury awarded Stow about $13 million in compensation. The defense attorney in the case was Dana Fox, a celebrated, creative litigator of high profile cases in the Los Angeles area. He was known for his work in civil rights cases and more recently, in cases involving issues of alleged police brutality. His biographical material includes an opening sentence that says: “As a result of his repeated retention in the most difficult, high exposure cases in California and Colorado, Dana Fox has become one of the most heralded trial attorneys, consistently obtaining results not thought possible for his clients, including multiple defense jury verdicts in prominent cases…Mr. Fox has developed a reputation as the “go-to” attorney in high profile, high exposure police use of force, premises and product liability, public entity and general liability cases….In 2013, Mr. Fox was named as one of the top 100 attorneys in California by the Los Angeles Daily Journal….”
Years ago, I had a student in Room 72 named Dana Fox. I was aware that he had moved to Los Angeles but I wasn’t sure whether this Dana Fox was the same Dana Fox who had attended Weston High School so I contacted him via email. Despite what has to be a very hectic and somewhat public existence, his reply came almost immediately.
“Yes, that Dana Fox. The one in your civics class who prosecuted the Tell-Tale Heart murder trial. I tried the case for the Dodgers and McCourt. Under the microscope and a lot of pressure, but would not have traded places with anyone.”
I then scoured my archived emails to see if we had made contact earlier. We had. “ I am now in my 26th year of law practice, and try cases. In fact, I’m in trial on a civil rights case. Your class was 80% of the impetus for me to pursue law.”
Dana’s legal career is in full flight. But in a very special way, it is nice to think that maybe his very first courtroom foray was in Room 72 where he was a determined and outspoken prosecutor. As a ninth grader, he was a “squirrelly” kid with enough energy to power a small city. Maybe Henry Adams was right after all. That “first trial” took place more than 40 years ago.