I tried a criminal case in 1990 (Danbury) against William Kunstler (far right) who believed no press was bad press. The movie doesn’t do him justice, predictably. Kunstler was as good a natural cross examiner as I’ve ever seen. And he was rather theatrical in our little CT trial. I learned many valuable lessons from that trial and from being opposing counsel.
The trial was so colorful, so impactful, it is a real shame Aaron Sorkin didn’t recreate it accurately. I expected more from Sorkin, don’t you?
Lessons I learned from Bill Kunstler:
- The trial is not over when the case is presented to the jury. Never stop arguing, advocating. Kunstler beat me during jury deliberations on read-back strategies.
- You can’t fight history. The judge was dealing with a legend and was going to give him the benefit of the doubt in every ruling.
- There is no such thing as bad press. Kunstler was running out of the courtroom through the whole trial making pay-phone calls to journalists as he read the daily headlines in the NY Times.
- A really good cross examiner through a skilled cross will pounce on the exposed weakness of a witness.
- Take really good notes during the trial, or have somebody do it. Kunstler took exquisitely detailed notes during the jury deliberations. I asked him why he was doing that. “I once won a case on it,” he said. And his second seat, the famous Ron Kuby, helped with note taking. But not much more.
- You’d be surprised how a well delivered line can have an impact on a jury. During his summation Kunstler, in a booming deep voice, warned the jury that if they convicted, ruined, this “pillar of the community” doctor on such flimsy evidence, one day they would “wake up screaming.” What a great and vivid image.
- Take the long view on life. There was more at stake in the case than me, a 31 year old rookie prosecutor, winning that one case.