Watching the Door
My colleague, Gerald Uelmen, recently lent me a collection of wonderful articles he has written on legal landmarks in California, famous California murder trials, and other bits of local legal history. In one of these articles (published in the March 1981 edition of Los Angeles Lawyer), Professor Uelmen relates the following (probably apocryphal, as he acknowledges) story:
A criminal defense lawyer is making his closing argument to the jury. His client is accused of murder, but the body of the victim has never been found. He dramatically withdraws his pocket watch and announces to the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have some astounding news. We have found the supposed victim of this murder alive and well, and, in exactly one minute, he will walk through that door into this courtroom.”
A hushed silence falls over the courtroom, as everyone waits for the momentous entry. Nothing happens.
The lawyer then says, “The mere fact that you were watching that door, expecting the victim to walk into this courtroom, suggests that you have a reasonable doubt whether a murder was committed.” Pleased with the impact of the stunt, he then sits down to await an acquittal.
The jury is instructed, files out and files back 10 minutes later with a verdict finding the defendant guilty. Following the proceedings, the astounded lawyer chases after the jury foreman to find out what went wrong. “How could you convict?” he asks. “You were all watching the door!”
The foreman explains, “Most of us were watching the door. But one of us was watching the defendant, and he wasn’t watching the door.”