In a trial of Hollywood film makers, perhaps it is only fitting that their seven-man defense team would be compared to the cast of a current box office smash.
“We’re like ‘Platoon'--all these different types brought together from different parts of the country to fight for a cause,” said Arnold L. Klein, who represents special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart in the “Twilight Zone” involuntary manslaughter trial.
While the jury has yet to decide how just that cause is, there is no question that Stewart, director John Landis and three film-making associates are represented by a diverse array of attorneys who include:
- James Neal, a gentlemanly, cigar-chomping Nashville barrister who rose to national fame prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa and Richard Nixon’s White House aides. He represents Landis.
- Harland Braun, a witty but acerbic Westside lawyer who has publicly referred to the prosecutor in the case as “scum.” Braun represents associate producer George Folsey.
- Eugene Trope, a white-goateed, 69-year-old civil attorney who has tried only a handful of criminal cases in his 41-year career. He represents helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo.
Rounding out the defense team are Leonard Levine, a shrewd courtroom presence who represents unit production coordinator Dan Allingham; Klein, an emotional, tousle-haired attorney who, along with Levine and Braun, formerly served in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office; James Sanders, Neal’s genial, hard-working Nashville co-counsel, and William Anderson, Trope’s partner, who has spoken only twice in the courtroom since the trial began last September.
Together, the septet is engaged in a drawn-out struggle against the people of California, represented by Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D’Agostino, a relentless foe known to her enemies as the “Dragon Lady.”
But despite their superior courtroom manpower, they face a tough battle in persuading a Superior Court jury that the five film makers were not criminally negligent in the 1982 film set deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors. Not only did the children, Renee Chen, 6, and Myca Dinh Lee, 7, die gruesome deaths when struck by a helicopter during the shooting of a mock Vietnam battle scene, but the defense admits that the two youngsters were hired illegally by the film makers.
What’s more, each defense lawyer realizes that the enemy could at any time spring forth from within, due to the inevitable frictions that result in such a lengthy proceeding. Indeed, some have interrupted their broadsides at D’Agostino in order to take potshots at each other.
Klein once remarked that Trope, who represents helicopter pilot Wingo, “jumps without a parachute” in his courtroom maneuvers. Others have light-heartedly sniped back at Klein, suggesting that the 44-year-old Buffalo native has himself been known to jump with little more than a parasol.
Disputes in strategy have also arisen, as might be expected in a situation where each attorney must look out for his own client’s best interest.
Trope, for instance, acknowledged that his fellow attorneys, particularly Neal, tried to convince him not to put Wingo on the witness stand last week. Trope ignored the advice, but his client, who returns to the stand Monday, has not, at least yet, told the jury anything that would severely damage the case of Landis or his co-defendants.
By and large, as the trial sluggishly draws toward a conclusion, the defense team has come across more as a repertory company than as a star vehicle, even with a national notable such as Neal.
Without question, one of the biggest surprises of the trial, which has had more than its share of bizarre twists, has been the Tennessee native’s subdued role as a member of what Klein has termed “a loose confederation” of defense lawyers.
Hired in 1985 to replace Braun in representing Landis, Neal, a former Watergate prosecutor, has received praise for his cross-examination of key witnesses such as special-effects man James Camomile--whom the defense blames for the tragedy--and in examining his own star witness, Landis.
Otherwise, Neal, 57, has allowed his partner to handle a good deal of the load. Consequently, some of Neal’s fellow attorneys have grumbled behind the scenes that the out-of-town “hired gun” has proven a disappointment.
“I haven’t learned anything from him except how to pause five minutes between questions,” Braun said.
Neal, a proud, one-time Marine captain, retorted that he is in a no-win situation.
“It appeared to me early on if I tried to be some sort of super-gun in this case, where most of the counsel are very competent, that would be counterproductive,” he explained. “No one really likes to try a case with multiple defendants. Everyone, to avoid a disaster, has to modify his style. Everyone. So I have tried to pick my spots.”
By now, he said, the trial has taken more calendar time than any other case in his illustrious career--longer than the Watergate prosecutions and longer than it took to win an acquittal for the Ford Motor Co. on reckless homicide charges stemming from an exploding gas tank on a Pinto hit from behind.
Neal, who claimed that he could probably sum up the entire case in a 30-minute final argument, acknowledged that he has become frustrated by the delays, which he blamed largely on D’Agostino, whom he said has “strung out the case unnecessarily.”
“It’s devastating to your professional and personal life,” noted Neal, who has had to delay cases in Florida and Tennessee while completing the trial, which had been expected to conclude last December but could stretch until May.
Still, the proceedings have given others a highly publicized forum in which to shine.
Both Sanders and Levine, for example, have received high marks from trial observers for their thorough preparation and for their quick, cogent arguments on a host of complicated courtroom issues. The longish-haired Sanders, 42, like Neal, speaks in a mellifluous but molasses-slow Southern drawl, joking that it gives him more time to think on his feet between statements.
Levine, a 40-year-old Los Angeles native, was referred to the “Twilight Zone” case by Braun, with whom he and Klein share a secretary. Since leaving the district attorney’s office in 1978, Levine’s most prominent previous case involved defending a Beverly Hills attorney who claimed that he had videotapes of model Vicki Morgan at sex parties with public officials.
Levine, a UCLA law school graduate, employs a terrier-like tenacity as he fires off questions in the courtroom. But few can match Braun and Klein, his fellow former prosecutors, for their aggressive and sometimes outrageous comments outside the courtroom as they attempt to mold public opinion.
Klein, 44, a master of metaphors and insults, has been particularly vociferous in his attacks on D’Agostino, whom he once said had the IQ of a radish.
“We’ve wanted to win for two reasons,” the Golden Gate Law School graduate said. “The first is to exonerate our clients because they are innocent. And the second is to see D’Agostino eat it. Her skills are minimal at best and her comprehension of the law is similar to wet cement.”
Braun, one of Los Angeles’ most colorful lawyers, has gone a step further, attacking Superior Court Judge Roger W. Boren, too.
Inside the courtroom, Braun, 45, has insistently told Boren that he is dead wrong about key issues, and in the courthouse hallway, he has publicly declared that the judge has at times taken a “simpleton approach.” “I feel like I’m almost like the judge’s conscience,” the irrepressible attorney recently boasted. “I say to him, ‘You screwed this up,’ but I admire him because if I’m right, he takes it.”
Braun, whose previous high-profile cases have included the successful defense of U.S. Rep Bobbi Fiedler on charges of campaign contribution violations and of two physicians accused of murder for unplugging life-support systems, is just as frank on most legal topics.
“We’re working in a climate of public opinion where people are almost presumed guilty when they’re charged,” Braun said. “The district attorney has all the cards in terms of manipulating the media. So to balance that out, I believe you have to be outspoken.”
While Braun may be impossible for the other defense lawyers to muzzle, Trope, who drives a gleaming white Rolls Royce convertible, has proven impossible to keep in check.
Unlike the other defense lawyers, who have billed their legal fees to the film’s producer, Warner Bros., Trope’s client was an independent contractor. Consequently, Wingo’s court costs are paid by his employer, Western Helicopter’s insurance carrier, and the Hollywood company.
Trope seems at times somewhat unsure of himself in a criminal courtroom and has been repeatedly told by the judge to rephrase his questions in the proper format.
At several critical junctures, Trope’s fellow attorneys have persuaded him not to go forward with what they deemed to be unnecessary or, at times, potentially backfiring cross-examination of prosecution witnesses.
But they couldn’t persuade him not to put his client on the stand.
The others have expressed concern about D’Agostino’s cross-examination of Wingo, which may begin Monday. At that point, she can question him extensively about statements that are inconsistent with those he made to federal investigators shortly after the film-set tragedy.
Trope, a genial man, seems to have taken the arm-twisting good-naturedly. But he remains unmoved.
Wingo “has been bursting to tell his story and I can’t see how the truth can hurt anyone,” he said in an interview last week. “How should I put it diplomatically? Neal is accustomed to running his own show and I’m not part of his show. And I’m not a Movieland lawyer, I’m a people’s lawyer, so I could care less. I’m only interested in one person--the pilot.”