Authors: Michael A Kahn
Maria Fallaci stared at me, incredulous. “And the punch line is?”
We were in her law office, which was on the fourth floor of an older high-rise along LaSalle Street in Chicago's Loop.
“No punch line.” I shrugged. “I'm just saying there were traces of Rohypnol in her blood.”
“Which means what? That I should have argued to the jury that he drugged her and fucked her, and when he came out of the shower she rose like some zombie from
The Night of the Living Dead
and cut off his cock? Come on, Rachel. I'm a defense lawyer, not a horror-flick producer.” She paused, trying to get herself under control. “Look, I'm sure you're a fine civil lawyer, and I'm sure you'll give Angela a fine defense in this Son of Sam case. But defending a lawsuit over money is totally different from defending a capital murder case.”
“I know,” I said, trying a conciliatory smile, ignoring her not-so-subtle put-down. I'd only make it worse by acting confrontational. I'd come up here assuming that she would react defensively to anything she could interpret as second-guessing her representation of Angela Green. And I didn't blame her. She'd lost one of the most famous trials of the decade and, in the process, had been subjected to plenty of armchair lawyering from the likes of Geraldo Rivera, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Gerry Spence, Marcia Clark, and the rest of the cable-TV courtroom mavens. And I'm sure she'd done it to herself as wellâduring and after the trial.
“Maria, I didn't come up here to critique your trial tactics, and I certainly didn't come here to make you angry. If I did, I'm sorry.”
Her nostrils flared and she nodded. “Don't worry,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “I'm a big girl.”
She ran her fingers through her long black hair, which was streaked with gray. As she did, she turned toward the window, her profile accenting her strong Italian nose. Now in her early forties, Maria Fallaci was still the “smoldering Sicilian beauty” that
had labeled her four years ago in the short profile the magazine ran in its annual “Women We Love” issue. What made her appearance there even more memorable was the Annie Leibovitz portrait that accompanied the copy. Instead of the usual defense-lawyer shotâglaring from the courthouse steps with arms crossed over chest or posed in front of the jury box with a forefinger pointing ominouslyâMaria was in a silky nightgown reclining on her four-poster bed. In the background, slightly out of focus, was her live-in lover, a young ballerina named Annette.
Like most of the cast in Angela's criminal trial, Maria first became a celebrity and then became an author. Her book,
, was scheduled for release in November. I'd read somewhere that the book promotion included a twenty-city tour with readings at several women's prisons. Only last week Liz Smith reported that Spike Lee had signed on to film the book-and-prison tour for an HBO documentary. And thus, Maria became a defendant in the Son of Sam case.
The meeting of defense counsel would start at ten o'clock this morning. I'd flown up early to meet with Maria in the hopes that she'd help quell my doubts about Angela's conviction. That seemed less and less likely.
I said, “I'm sure that the Angela Green I met earlier this week is a lot different than the Angela Green you represented back then.” I paused. “It's just thatâ¦” My voice trailed away.
“That she seems incapable of murder?”
“That's the way it is in most domestic violence cases.” She stood and walked to the window. Staring down at the El train rumbling past, she said, “I've defended husbands and I've defended wives in everything from spousal abuse to murder. Very few of them seem the type.” She turned toward me. “It's as if there's a secret chemical reaction going on inside the relationship, something toxic that's hidden from the rest of us. Sometimes it turns one of them into a temporary monster.”
“But not always.”
She studied me. “Not always. But in Angela's case there was plenty of evidence pointing toward a temporary monster.”
In deciding how to defend the murder charge, Maria had had to make a difficult choice between the traditional route of trying to plant reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds and the more unusual route of finding a theme that could turn the case into a trial about something other than the crime charged. Most of the media pundits had assumed long before she rose in court to deliver her opening statement that Maria would choose that second option. After all, the evidence against Angela had seemed overwhelming, with or without the trace of Rohypnol in her blood. But in predicting the second option, the media assumed that the theme would be race. They assumed that Maria would play the “race” card, focusing on the black-white angle. A “reverse O.J.,” as Geraldo labeled itâscorned jealous black woman kills the white man she's about to lose to a white woman.
Instead, Maria played the “battered wife” card, calling to the stand a parade of Angela's friends to testify to the emotional abuse Michael had subjected her client to over the yearsâthe withering sarcasm, the nasty put-downs, the racist jabs. After Angela gained twenty-five pounds during the final years of their marriage, one friend testified that Michael took to calling her “Aunt Jemima.” In public. Although Michael junior refused to testify, Sonya did, and she recounted to a hushed courtroom the time that her father had reduced her mother to tears at his own birthday party because she'd undercooked the cake.
Angela's psychiatrist spent a full day on the stand testifying about the mental anguish inflicted by her sadistic husband, about how Michael played upon Angela's lifelong fear of abandonment and her deep insecurities, about how Angela's inability to fight back only accelerated the downward spiral of their corrosive relationship. Throughout it all, her psychiatrist explained, Angela struggled to be the good wife, to keep up the faÃ§ade, to try to placate her demanding husband in the hope that the bad Michael would somehow give way to the good Michael. In the end, when Michael finally walked out on her, she was besieged by feelings of failure. If indeed she'd been driven to kill him, the shrink opined, it would have been in a fit of madnessâand the fact that she could remember none of it only proved the magnitude of her remorse.
The national interest in the trial seemed to double each day. Dominick Dunne sniffed around for a week or so and filed an elegant little chatter piece for
The New Yorker
. Even the
New York Post
got into the act, running the headline AVENGING ANGELA on the morning of closing arguments. Geraldo himself appeared on a split screen during the closing arguments. That way, he explained, he could watch Maria Fallaci on the studio monitor as his television audience could watch him watch. Geraldo put on a good show. Overcome by Fallaci's fiery coda, he actually raised his fist toward the camera in a Black Panther salute and shouted, “Right on!”
The analysts from Court TV, CNBC, and CNN agreed that Maria Fallaci's closing was breathtaking. But of course the analysts from Court TV, CNBC, and CNN hadn't been sitting on that white, suburban jury for the past five weeks, and those jurors just plain weren't buying any “battered wife” defense. It took them less than six hours to return a verdict of guilty on one count of murder in the second degree.
“What else bothered you about the file?” Maria asked.
She shrugged. “There always are gaps. It's the nature of the beast. Which gap bothered you the most?”
“Her alibi witness?” She shook her head. “A dead end.”
“I didn't see anything one way or the other in the file.”
“Maybe in the
file. I had one of my investigators try to find him.”
“No such person.” She returned to her desk and took a seat. “My investigator started with the hospital's records. He turned up three female patients who'd been in the hospital during the relevant period and had adult sons named John. Two of those Johns lived out of town, and only one of the two had come to St. Louis to visit his mother in the hospital. He'd come only once, and in no way resembled Angela's John. She agreed he wasn't the one.”
“What about the third?”
“He lived in St. Louis, but it definitely wasn't him.”
“He's black, he's extremely obese, and he had an airtight alibi for the night of the murder.”
I let it sink in. “So no John.”
“So no alibi.”
I leaned back in my chair and frowned. “I don't get it.”
“Neither did I. So I ignored it.”
There were twelve of us seated around the enormous conference table. We were on the sixty-third floor of River's Edge Tower, a curved-front steel-and-glass office building along Wacker Drive, high above the Chicago River. Only the caption was missing from our tableau.
Powwow of the Pomposities
Assemblage of the Arrogant
Synod of the Self-Important
Here on behalf of Angela Green's publisher were three lawyers from the 275-lawyer Park Avenue firm of Braun, Proctor & Silverberg, led today by none other than the 275-pound Harvey Silverberg, self-styled First Amendment “freedom fighter”âfighting the good fight today at $600 an hour. But as Hefty Harvey was quick to point out, the price of liberty is not cheap. Nor were Harvey's bespoke London suit and platinum Rolex watch.
A team of four attorneys from the Century City firm of Corcoran Fox was here on behalf of the motion picture studio. At their helm was sixty-eight-year-old Nelson Liberman, tagged “the Silver Fox of Corcoran Fox” by
The American Lawyer
. Reputed to have graduated from Harvard Law School with the fourth highest grade-point average in the school's history, Liberman had represented everyone from Sam Goldwyn and Swifty Lazar to Steven Spielberg and Michael Ovitz. The tinted glasses and raspy voice only added to his Hollywood mystique.
Our hosts today were the Chicago attorneys of McCambridge and Faber, retained by Maria Fallaci's publisher. Lead counsel for that crew was Hank Brunanski, who'd earned the moniker “Hammerin' Hank” during his tenure as U.S. attorney. Although Hank loved “dah Bears” and was proud of his “Sout' side” roots, his accent was deceiving. He'd graduated number one in his class at the University of Chicago, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and was blessed with a photographic memory. Hammerin' Hank regularly astonished courtroom observers while cross-examining witnesses by quoting verbatim from their depositions, and all without notesâ
Do you recall, Mr. Aronson, that I took your deposition two years ago on March third? At page 112 of that deposition, I asked you, and I quote, “When you dictated your letter of April 17, 1997
An even dozen attorneys around the tableâthree from Braun, Proctor & Silverberg, four from Corcoran Fox, four from McCambridge and Faber, andâta-da!âone from the Law Offices of Rachel Gold, all of us gathered together today by a clever lawsuit starring Trent Cummings, son of Samantha Cummings. The lawsuit contended that the eleven-year-old Trent was an heir of Michael Green by virtue of the doctrine of “equitable adoption.” As Michael Green's alleged de facto stepson, Trent was suing for his inheritance. Ordinarily, this would have been the most pointless of lawsuits, the litigation equivalent of trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip, since the estate of Michael Green was insolvent. Green had gone to his grave at a particularly inopportune time financially, leaving an estate with more debts than assets. But Trent's lawyer was no ordinary plaintiff's shark, and there was nothing in the least bit ordinary about his lawsuit. He'd done something never before attempted in Missouri. He'd filed a Son of Sam claim.
As the name suggests, a Son of Sam claim is based on a law enacted in the aftermath of the serial killer who terrorized New York City during the summer of 1977 under the pseudonym Son of Sam. By the time the police identified David Berkowitz as Son of Sam and apprehended him, the rights to his story were worth millions. The New York legislatureâoutraged at the prospect of a mass murderer profiting from his notoriety while the families of his victims remained uncompensatedâenacted the first Son of Sam law. It provided that all income otherwise payable to a convicted or admitted criminal from any book, motion picture, or other work depicting the crime must instead be paid to the New York crime victims board for use in compensating victims of the crime and their families. Ironically, the law captured millions of dollars from the perpetrators of several highly publicized homicides but not a penny from the original target, since it applied only to people actually convicted of a capital crime. David Berkowitz was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and thus was never convicted of anything.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually declared New York's Son of Sam law unconstitutional, but other states enacted their own versions, each with its own twist. Missouri's covered not merely royalties payable to the criminal but also half of the revenues payable to anyone else involved in the creation of a book or dramatic work about either the criminal or the trial. Little Trent Cummings, as an alleged heir of the victim, was seeking all royalties payable to Angela and half of the money to be earned by Maria Fallaci, by the respective publishers of her book and Angela's, and by the producers of any movies based on those books. Trent, as the child of Samantha Cummings, was, quite literally, a son of Sam, and thus his lawsuit was truly a first: a real Son of Sam asserting a Son of Sam claim. The media tagged it “Sam Squared.”
Although the other firms had each retained a St. Louis attorney to serve as local counsel, that role in this case would be only one small step up the evolutionary ladder from a mail drop. Indeed, none of those St. Louis attorneys was present today. By contrast, I was the local yokel who'd somehow, some way, ended up as the sole attorney for the central defendant in Sam Squared. To say the least, that made me a disconcerting presence at the table. I was a solo practitioner from the boonies who, God forbid, was answerable to no higher authority in a different time zone. While I assumed that one of the flunkeys on each team of lawyers had done a background check on my credentials, they would no doubt assume that the benefits of a Harvard Law School education had long since been squandered during my sojourn in the fly-over land. Their unease made me smile.