In a Birmingham courtroom, Sarah Collins Rudolph described the last thing she saw on that Sunday morning 38 years ago. In the ladies’ room of the 16th Street Church, her older sister Addie, 14, was tying a sash around the waist of 11-year-old Denise McNair. Then the world shattered into noise and pain and sudden darkness. Blind and terrified, 12-year-old Sarah cried out for her sister and was answered with terrible silence.
Eleven days ago, prosecutors in the case against Thomas E. Blanton Jr., the ex-Ku Klux Klansman accused in the deadly bombing of the 16th Street Church, called their last witness--Rudolph, the only survivor of the blast that killed her sister and McNair as well as Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, both 14.
Her voice was not loud, but in the held-breath silence of the courtroom, nothing else could be heard. With the image of a wounded girl calling out again and again for her dead sister, the prosecution rested. It was like a moment in a movie. And with very good reason--it had been orchestrated by a professional screenwriter.
Not the words; the words were Rudolph’s own, and the power of the tragedy and all it stood for would stir emotions under any circumstance. But the fact that Rudolph, who is still blind in one eye, was the final witness and that her testimony ended with that horrifying image was the work of Neal Howard, a television writer who had recently made the unlikely cross-over to trial consultant.
A few days later, on what would have been Addie Collins’ 52nd birthday, Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert Posey made his closing statements. “These children must not have died in vain,” he told the jury. “Don’t let the deafening blast of his bomb be what’s left ringing in our ears.”
That image, that sentiment, also came from Howard. The jury deliberated for 2 1/2 hours before declaring Blanton guilty.
“Every emotion you can imagine went through my body,” says Doug Jones, the U.S. attorney who worked on the case from the moment he was sworn in four years ago. “But mainly it was relief that we were able to give those girls and their families the justice they deserved.” Howard, he says, was enormously helpful in making their case. “He brought a passion to the case you could really feel, and he helped us use the passage of time to our benefit.”
Time was just one of the obstacles the prosecution faced. Although Blanton had been one of four suspects during the original FBI investigation, the case had been aborted, the records sealed by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The discovery of tapes on which Blanton boasts about bombing churches allowed the government to reopen the case against him, but they were by no means perfect evidence. The tapes were old, the voices often distorted, and Blanton never directly confessed to the bombing. A key witness placing Blanton’s car at the church the morning of the bombing had died, and Blanton’s co-defendant, Frank Cherry, had been declared incompetent to face trial.
“This was a real building-block case,” says Jones. “The jury was going to have to pay attention to every testimony. Neal gave me an example that I used in my opening--that just as the church was rebuilt brick by brick, so were we going to rebuild this case. A lot of people told me how effective that was.”
Howard also helped Jones and Posey directly use the passage of time to their advantage. “I told the jury right off how the passage of time helped the defendant,” Jones says. “How he counted on it, how he counted on memory blurring, witnesses dying, on his own aging. Neal gave me a list, and it was very effective.”
“From a writer’s standpoint, those years were a benefit,” says Howard. “Thirty-eight years without justice. That is very dramatic. Sarah’s words were very dramatic. I know enough to open big and end big.”
Inspired by Lawyers’ Lack of Passion
Howard, a lanky 42-year-old who looks the part of a screenwriter, with de rigueur mini-specs and nervous energy, divides his time between Los Angeles and Atlanta. He came to the growing field of trial consulting out of frustration. While watching the various hearings in last year’s election recount process, he says, he was shocked at how badly the lawyers presented their cases.
“They were just terrible,” he says. “They missed the whole point of arguing principles. They got hung up on boring details. They lacked passion.”
A jury’s perception of how a trial should proceed, he says, echoing many legal experts, is, for better or worse, based on what the members see on TV and in the movies. And lawyers need to recognize that.
“Some lawyers may be great orators,” he says, “but many are terrible writers. They need help.”
That help, Howard decided, would come from him. As a college undergrad, he had been pre-law until a failed romance derailed his plans for attending law school. He turned to advertising with a little speech-writing on the side, which in time led to screenwriting, making him a true Hollywood hybrid with a talent for making the calls and the pitch. He and his writing partner, Ira Fritz, have written mostly comedy--an episode of “Coach,” one of “The King of Queens,” a few episodes of “The Love Boat II,” and short-lived staff positions on the canceled show “Tucker.” But like thousands of screenwriters in this town, they have written many screenplays and spec scripts, including courtroom dramas, some of which are in development, some of which are in the drawer.
After talking to a number of lawyers about his self-described “lamebrained plan” to aid lawyers in their oratory, Howard met Andy Sheldon, an Atlanta trial consultant. A former lawyer and psychotherapist, Sheldon says he was at first put off by Howard’s unorthodox background.
“But I met with him, and he seemed sincere,” Sheldon says. “So I gave him an old case to critique, and I was very impressed. He really understood what we were trying to do.”
What Sheldon and other trial consultants try to do is give attorneys an edge--in understanding the community, in selecting the jurors, in presenting the witnesses, in making the arguments. A scant 20 years old, trial consulting is an industry that gives some folks the willies--too many focus groups, not enough jurisprudence. Much was made of John DeLorean’s decision to drive a Mercedes station wagon to his 1984 trial because a consultant felt that this was not the car of a drug dealer, and some felt that jury selection in the O.J. Simpson trial became a war of surveys.
Most trial consultants, who can earn upward of $4,000 a day, come from the legal, psychological or sociological fields, but the Hollywood cross-pollination, though rare, seems strangely appropriate.
“I’ve never heard of a screenwriter coming into this work,” says Jo Ellan Dimitrius, who has been in the field for 20 years and served as consultant for O.J. Simpson’s team. “But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.” Her L.A. law firm, Vinson and Dimitrius, also worked for prosecutors on the Birmingham case, and she and company president Stephen Paterson agree that the most important thing they do is help the attorneys tell the story better.
“We don’t want our clients getting hung up on details,” Paterson says. “Juries want the overall story made clear for them.”
He Brought a New Perspective to Case
That’s what made Howard such a perfect addition to the team, says Sheldon. Especially in the Birmingham case. Originally hired to help with the opening and closing statements, Howard was soon plotting out strategy. “Sometimes it would come out as pages of dialogue,” Howard says. “But often it was in expository blocks, like treatments.”
As a writer, he says, he was able to look at the case from an entirely new perspective, one more closely aligned to the jury’s expectation than legal expertise. He did visualize scenes, he says, drawing on some of his favorite courtroom dramas--"To Kill a Mockingbird,” episodes of “Law and Order"--but he stopped short of mentally casting them. “I probably would have cast myself,” he says, laughing self-conciously. “I get carried away.”
Howard could not attend the actual trial because he and Fritz were in Los Angeles, trying to get staff positions on a television show. So while other screenwriter guild members were wringing their hands over the possibility of a writer’s strike, Howard was glued to news outlets and his e-mail.
“About halfway through the trial, Andy told me how much they were relying on stuff I had written,” says Howard. “And, suddenly, I’m thinking, Jesus, I hope I didn’t steer these guys wrong.”
He also realized he was completely unprepared for the prosecutors to lose. “For a while, the trial was touch and go,” he says. “And emotionally I had never considered the possibility that we would not win. It’s the rare script in which good does not triumph.”
He has, he says, pitched a movie about the Birmingham case to his agent at William Morris and was told that the idea had been floated before and turned down by every studio in town. (In 1997, filmmaker Spike Lee released the documentary “4 Little Girls,” which examined the aftermath and significance of the bombing and the deaths.)
“I have noticed,” Howard says carefully, “that projects with an all-black cast, dealing with civil rights, do not have a high success rate.”
Both he and Sheldon want to continue working together. Like many screenwriters, Howard is used to cobbling together many projects to make a living--he still does advertising work--and he would like this new field to become a primary focus of his work.
“That I was able to help, even in a small way, bring justice to those girls. . . " he says, his voice trailing off for a moment. “In this case,” he begins again, “many thought it would be easy to say, ‘Let’s forgive and forget.’ For me, only the family has that right. The rest of us have a legal and moral obligation to remember.”