They call him the singing prosecutor, a legal eagle given to serenading the judge and jury.
His trials, one critic said, “have taken a turn for the verse.”
A judge complains that singing in court makes light of serious business.
No matter, says Assistant Dist. Atty. Paul Petro, singing often beats a lot of talking.
“I don’t fancy myself a singer, but I think it’s an effective means of communication,” Petro said.
In recent months, the 55-year-old prosecutor has entertained courtrooms in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Washington County with excerpts from “Home Sweet Home,” “Moonlight and Roses” and “Pennies From Heaven.”
“A trial attorney can be very effective if he uses references to literature or poetry that are known by everybody,” Petro said.
“Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything different in reciting, say, a famous quotation or excellent poem than singing a couple lines of a song. After all, when you think about it, the best writers of concise English are really the lyricists.”
His latest tuneful tour de force came during the September trial of a woman charged with stealing two country music cassettes from a department store.
“Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven,” Petro crooned during his opening argument. “Don’t you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven. You’ll find your fortune falling all over town.”
He suddenly switched from song to speech, without missing a beat.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant’s fortune was falling all over Gee Bee Department Store,” he recalled telling the jury. Then, he says, “I went into the facts.”
“Singing helps to focus the jury’s attention to certain things and to listen to the arguments,” Petro said. “But in the great majority of cases, the jury will follow the facts.”
Robert McGrew, jury foreman for the retail theft trial, said the guilty verdict, indeed, was based on testimony and evidence.
“Singing just didn’t seem appropriate, but that’s my opinion. We didn’t discuss it,” said McGrew, 49, who manages a welding and fabricating business.
Juror Tony Gregor, 71, a retired feed mill worker, laughed out loud and slapped his knee when Petro broke into “Pennies From Heaven.”
“I was surprised. You very seldom hear anybody singing that song,” Gregor said, chuckling. “Everybody was laughing. Something new, you know?”
Washington County Common Pleas Judge David Gilmore was not amused. It was the second time Petro had burst into song in his courtroom.
‘Makes Light’ of Matter
“I don’t think anything he’s done has been prejudicial or I would have stopped it,” Gilmore said. “My only objection is that it makes light of what is a very serious matter.”
The Observer-Reporter newspaper noted on the editorial page after the retail theft trial that Petro “has done nothing really wrong here, other than to trivialize the judicial system.”
“Save us from the singing prosecutor,” the headline pleaded. His trials take “a turn for the verse,” Managing Editor Park Burroughs wrote.
Criticism, much of it tongue-in-cheek, also has come from defense attorneys. One lawyer suggested that Petro consider “Jailhouse Rock.”
“Of course, that’s not my speed nor would I,” Petro said. “That would be inappropriate.”
In Good Taste
Petro insists that his musical selections are always relevant, thankfully few and far between, and in good taste.
He chose “Home Sweet Home” for his opening argument in a February murder trial before Gilmore, his courtroom singing debut, to “indicate this great tragedy occurred in a guy’s home.”
“It just seemed right to sing,” says Petro, a baritone. “I didn’t bother to ask anybody. Probably it’s a good thing I didn’t. They would have said, ‘You’re nuts.’ ”
In May, Petro put on another a cappella performance, this time the first line of “Moonlight and Roses,” to show that an alleged burglary occurred on a moonlit night.
“Pennies From Heaven” was Petro’s most spontaneous rendition. He decided to give the defendant “some special treatment” for fear that she might be acquitted because of the relative insignificance of the alleged crime.
‘It’s Not Demeaning’
In all three instances, “it’s something I’ve felt is appropriate,” he said. “I feel it’s proper. It’s not demeaning. We’re not reducing the courtroom to a variety show.”
Petro is modest about his singing talents.
“I’ve sung in the church choir, but I’ve never pretended to be a soloist,” he said.
Every time he has sung, he has won. As a result, Washington County Dist. Atty. John C. Pettit doesn’t object.
“Paul does a good job,” Pettit said. “I entrust to him some of the more difficult and complicated cases that come into the office. If from time to time he feels a certain thing is going to aid him in making the jury understand his point, then I certainly don’t see anything wrong with it.”
For Petro, verse is superior to verbosity.
Not Great Literature
“I don’t know if you’ve ever bothered to read court opinions,” he said. “They’re not considered great literature. I mean, they’re well-written. But they’re not the type of material that really stimulates people.”
Singing, on the other hand, “is very effective. I think the people like it. No question about it because, unfortunately, too many speeches in the courtroom are boring.”
Petro has no idea when or what he’ll sing next.
“To use a pun,” he said, “you’ve got to play it by ear.”