Activision calls in legal heavy artillery for Call of Duty trial


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Activision Blizzard Inc. has called in the legal equivalent of a Special Ops agent -- Beth Wilkinson, a former assistant U.S. attorney who delivered the closing arguments that led to the death sentence for Timothy McVeigh.

The Santa Monica games publisher, in gearing up for its lawsuit against the original developers of the multibillion-dollar Call of Duty franchise, selected Wilkinson as its trial attorney just weeks before the case is set to go before a jury on May 29.


Activision’s lead counsel on the case, Steven Marenberg with Irell & Manella in Century City, will remain on the legal team. Activision and Marenberg declined to comment.

Wilkinson, who is known for her skills as a formidable prosecutor and orator, is a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in Washington, D.C.

According to her biography on the firm’s website, Wilkinson began her legal career in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of captain. She was appointed as a special assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida in 1990 to assist with the U.S. prosecution of Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian dictator, on drug trafficking and money laundering.

In 1995, she was tapped to be a special attorney to the U.S. attorney general in the federal government’s case against Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who were convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and injured hundreds more.

Her appointment in the Activision case shows how critical the outcome is for the company, which has generated more than $6.75 billion in revenue since its launch in 2003. The company’s relationship with the original developers of the franchise, Jason West and Vincent Zampella, soured over the years, and Activision fired the duo in 2009.

West, Zampella and several dozen other developers in their studio sued Activision for withholding royalties totaling several hundred million dollars. Activision countersued, alleging the developers had violated their employment contract.


The case was set to go to trial on May 29. But with Activision switching to a new trial attorney so late in the game, it will likely ask the court for a 30-day postponement to allow Wilkinson time to get up to speed on the details.

Why the last-minute switcheroo? Activision won’t say, but it could be related to how potential jurors are likely to react. Weeks before a jury trial, litigants often present their cases before mock juries. The procedure is akin to focus-testing a product to see if average people are likely to buy what you’re selling. And with Wilkinson as the salesman, Activision is hoping that she can minimize the potential for jurors to regard the trial as a case of David versus Goliath.


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-- Alex Pham