Controversy over the verdict in the recent Ernst trial brought back memories of my days in court.
No. Not as a defendant, nor as an attorney. As a reporter for the newspaper.
I had covered a few minor cases, such as small damage suits, etc. Then came a murder trial. It was the talk of the town and would be front page news.
As a "cub" reporter, on the first day of the trial, I was probably more nervous than the defendant. As the various players in this real life drama entered the court room, I mentally identified them because of physical characteristics.
Much to my surprise, the sinister-appearing fellow I thought was the accused was one of the defense attorneys! And the defendant was a meek-looking, average citizen.
The regal appearance of District Judge E. Gardner Brownlee, in his black robe, was impressive and did not disappoint me. The proceedings began. I scribbled furiously, trying to record every detail. (Shorthand was never my long suit.)
During the first recess, a veteran radio reporter warned me to be extremely cautious in accurately reporting the story, or the paper might be sued. His remarks didn't improve my nerves. Then, Judge Brownlee approached, to meet the press. Following introductions he asked me:
"What do you think of the proceedings so far?"
I confessed: "To tell you the truth, I'm really scared. I have never covered a murder trial before!"
With a smile, he leaned forward and whispered:
"To tell you the truth, I'm also scared. I have never presided at a murder trial before." I felt a bit better.
Following that trial I have always compared the actions of presiding judges - in person, films and television - to Judge Brownlee's. Not all judges are created equal. He was attentive at all times. Impartial. Professional.
For me, that trial was an education both in the law, court room proceedings and in my own field of journalism. At one time I toyed with thoughts of returning to school and getting a law degree. Then I realized most lawyer's lives didn't consist of exciting murder trials. Reporting was more fun.
Watching the reaction of jury members was also interesting. The prosecuting attorney presented the state's case in a logical, calm manner. Sometimes jurors dozed as he droned on, like a lecturing professor.
The jury woke up when the defending attorneys took the floor. They put on an entertaining show, especially during the summation of the case at the end of the trial. One of the defense lawyers was especially dramatic, ranting and raving and re-enacting the scene of the crime, even going so far as to fall on the floor. Jury members, nearly hypnotized, hung on every word.
Mentally, I shook my head in disbelief. With all the real evidence presented, it was so clearly obvious - at least to me (and intelligent people) - the defendant was guilty.
The verdict came in after a few hours. INNOCENT!
Even though a reporter must remain objective, I was secretly enraged and vented my feelings at home.
Later, I discussed my disappointment with Judge Brownlee and said I believed the case to be a miscarriage of justice. I thought members of that jury were ignorant and didn't pay attention to the evidence.
He listened patiently and then replied: "Our jury system isn't perfect. But it's the best system we have devised. If you were on trial would you rather be judged by a dozen of your peers or just one person?"
After some thought, I replied: "That would depend on the accusation and the judge."
Days later, the verdict still rankled. The late Leon Bulen, an old-time local attorney and a member of Toastmaster's, heard of my displeasure. At the time, I was also a member of the Missoula Toastmistress Club.
He baited me with an innocent comment. Then, after listening to my indignant remarks, with a twinkle in his eyes, he asked:
"As a Toastmistress, who do you believe gave the most convincing speech at the conclusion?"
He had me there. Logical evidence can seldom beat a convincing speaker.
Another case - not in court, but a hearing years ago, trying to determine whether to allow the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores. City Hall was packed.
The attorney for the stores gave a calm and logical presentation for having the liquor products available to grocery shoppers.
Then the attorney against the sale took center stage. He might have majored in drama, as well as law. He convincingly thundered against the evils of drink.
"Do you want your innocent children to be exposed to those shiny, tempting cans of beer when they stop by the neighborhood grocery on their way home from school?"
"NO," the people shouted.
It was several years before stores were allowed to carry alcohol products.
The cases rest.
Evelyn King is a retired Missoulian reporter whose column appears every Sunday in Montana Territory.