When real life de­fies script

How Bill Cosby’s le­gal drama was — and wasn’t — like pop cul­ture de­pic­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Steven Zeitchik

A jour­nal­ist from a big city wakes up in the same one-horse Penn­syl­va­nia town ev­ery day hop­ing for some­thing — any­thing — to be dif­fer­ent. He trudges off to see men in long black gar­ments make pro­nounce­ments, won­der­ing why his life has come to this — won­der­ing why, no mat­ter what he does, the next morn­ing the clock ra­dio will go off at ex­actly the same time and leave him to do it all over again.

For two weeks this month, I cov­ered the Bill Cosby sex­ual-as­sault trial in Norristown, Pa. Cen­ter­ing on an al­leged at­tack on former Tem­ple Univer­sity bas­ket­ball staffer An­drea Con­stand, it was an ex­tremely se­ri­ous and of­ten dis­turb­ing af­fair. It also, at times, re­minded me of “Ground­hog Day,” es­pe­cially at its end, when each day of jury de­lib­er­a­tions was much like the last and then ended pretty much where it be­gan. (The judge de­clared a mis­trial last week­end.)

I’d cov­ered le­gal sto­ries be­fore, in­clud­ing a case in front of the Supreme Court. But I’ve never been on one with a de­fen­dant this high­pro­file, and never for so long; I en­tered a Cosby court­room for the first time nearly 18 months ago.

Be­cause I am a mem­ber of the Cal­en­dar staff, my re­por­to­rial knobs are usu­ally set to arts and en­ter­tain­ment sto­ries. And though my mind was tuned in to le-

ma­neu­ver­ing, it was hard some­times not to see the pro­ceed­ings through a pop­cul­tural fil­ter.

When a wit­ness noted how he wasn’t a doc­tor, my mind im­me­di­ately went to “Like Dr. Huxtable?” The wit­ness had the same thought; he slipped in a ref­er­ence a mo­ment later.

As pro­ceed­ings wore on with a kind of self-per­pet­u­at­ing logic, the trial en­gen­dered among many re­porters an esprit de corps, a gal­lows hu­mor and se­verely warped no­tions of proper diet and sleep — in other words, it was like ev­ery film fes­ti­val I’ve ever at­tended.

At one point ,I even be­gan to won­der if we might one day find out that this lit­tle is­land we were on, with its own rules and hi­er­ar­chies and weird oc­cur­rences, wasn’t real at all and that we’d all died in the ini­tial plane crash. I might have spent an idle mo­ment scan­ning the jury box for Ja­cob.

But it was the le­gal backand-forth that trig­gered the bulk of the pop-cul­tural ideas.

I grew up with court­room dra­mas. My fa­ther loves the genre and showed me ev­ery­thing from “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird” to “In­herit the Wind” to “12 An­gry Men.” I was al­most old enough to ap­pre­ci­ate “Mat­lock” in prime time; I cer­tainly caught the 1990s’ wave of “Law & Order.” And in my life­time, Hol­ly­wood has pro­duced a slew of trial-based movies, of all stripes: “The Verdict” and “Mu­sic Box,” “From the Hip” and “A Few Good Men,” “Jagged Edge” and “The Judge.”

The truth is, we’re drown­ing in le­gal sto­ries, some­times even more than we re­al­ize. Which is what makes a close-up view of an event like the Cosby trial so fa­mil­iar and so jar­ring.

As the judge in the case kept re­mind­ing the ju­rors (and as any­one who’s served on a jury re­al­izes), real-life tri­als move much slower than they do on tele­vi­sion. Ques­tions are meant to set up other ques­tions; what might be dra­matic mo­ments end up in a fusil­lade of pro­ce­dural points.

The fact that it was a celebrity — that one of the most fa­mous co­me­di­ans in Amer­i­can his­tory was hav­ing his fate de­bated in front of him — didn’t ma­te­ri­ally up the drama. Even mo­ments that, in fact, were big of­ten came cam­ou­flaged in legalese.

At one point ,the de­fense tried to in­tro­duce a wit­ness who claimed that the al­leged vic­tim had told her she planned to launch an ex­tor­tion plot against a Cosby-like fig­ure. It was a key wit­ness that could change the tide of the case — and was over­ruled and dis­pensed with by a sim­ple ob­jec­tion. The whole process was so quick, and so dry, it was only a day later that we learned the sig­nif­i­cance.

There were times, it should be said, when the level of the­atri­cal­ity was high. Cosby’s lead at­tor­ney, Brian McMona­gle, could eas­ily have been work­ing on his At­ti­cus Finch au­di­tion in his clos­ing ar­gu­ment; at one mo­ment he ac­tu­ally looked to the heav­ens and said, “Why are we here?”

Mean­while, when Con­stand’s mother tes­ti­fied about her emo­tional re­ac­tion to the ac­count her daugh­ter gave her, it left the gallery in tears. The tes­ti­monies of Con­stand and an­other ac­cuser, Kelly John­son, were po­tent and per­sua­sive in ways hard to con­vey; if you read the tran­script, you’d send it to the Sun­dance screen­writ­ing lab so a young writer could learn from its ex­am­ple.

And the dra­matic con­fronta­tion with a dis­cred­ited ex­pert wit­ness for the plaintiff when a Face­book post about their true be­liefs was un­earthed put that “Brady Bunch” neck-brace mo­ment to shame.

Still, what un­folded was fre­quently more about the pro­saic than per­son­al­i­ties. The dis­trict at­tor­ney, Kevin Steele, gave a clos­ing that stretched more than two hours. It fea­tured many slides with de­tailed break­down of the charges and the kind of wind­ing de­liv­ery that would have kept a film edi­tor gain­fully em­ployed for days.

Yet I re­al­ized it would be a mis­take to con­fuse the dy­namic of the events with what was ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing. The lay­ers of sub­text were all there, and if char­ac­ters like Perry Ma­son have in one way sold us a bill of goods, they also have qui­etly in­stilled in us a sense of how things re­ally work.

For in­stance, the glimpses of the jury were fleet­ing and not very re­veal­ing as the 18 cit­i­zens from Pitts­burgh, on the other side of the state, shuf­fled in and out of the court­room stone­faced. But as later ac­counts showed, it turns out they’d been punch­ing walls and ar­gu­ing pas­sion­ately, Henry Fonda-style. It was all there — we just couldn’t al­ways see it.

The screen en­ter­tain­ment that kept com­ing to mind was “The Night Of,” the HBO se­ries that de­buted al­most a year ago. In it, Riz Ahmed plays a Pak­istani Amer­i­can ac­cused of mur­der­ing a rich young white woman, and the court­room mo­ments could move slowly, some­times painfully. But you could feel the weight of each pro­ce­dural mo­tion, the con­se­quences in each lawyerly throat-clear.

A num­ber of times dur­ing the Cosby trial, I found my­self men­tally ac­cess­ing that show — the col­or­ful de­fense at­tor­ney, the me­thod­i­cal pros­e­cu­tor, the clipped bu­gal reau­cracy of the po­lice wit­nesses. Most im­por­tant, I thought of how dra­matic the se­ries’ episodes, which like the Cosby case also dealt with gen­der and race and power and mem­ory, could be be­neath the ba­nal­ity.

And that left me en­cour­aged. Be­cause for all the decades of Hol­ly­wood le­gal tales, it was one of the most re­cent pieces that seemed to get it most right — that de­mon­strated how ex­cit­ing it could all be by not seem­ing very ex­cit­ing at all.

Our fic­tional court­room sto­ries were get­ting bet­ter — giv­ing a sense, in a cou­ple of hours of screen time, what it was like to ob­serve 18 months of le­gal ma­neu­ver­ing. It made me heart­ened by the ex­pe­ri­ence. Even if Andie MacDow­ell wasn’t wait­ing to tell me she loved me at the end of it.

Matt Rourke As­so­ci­ated Press

BILL COSBY lis­tens to a state­ment be­ing read by Ebonee M. Benson out­side the court­house af­ter a mis­trial in his sex­ual as­sault case.

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