21 October 2003

Oh dear. Another misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up, from someone who should (and usually does) know better. At Slate today, in commenting on Muhammed's last-minute self-representation at his criminal trial, Dahlia Lithwick reaches the right conclusion—that misguided precedent essentially allows capital defendants a state-assisted suicide. However, in the middle of her otherwise cogent analysis, she says this:

It is a myth that trials are about "telling your story"; that, as Muhammad seems to believe, if you can just get up and babble at the jurors, they'll eventually believe you. Trials are about managing a complex system of filters that allows some evidence to be heard and some to be suppressed. Trials are about subtle cross-examinations that diminish the credibility of a key witness. Trials are about the introduction of mitigating evidence at the sentencing phase. Managing your defense without command of these skills is like performing a heart transplant without surgical training... something else we do not, by the way, generally permit.

"Court-Assisted Suicide: Why Only Serial Killers Have a Right to Die".

Aside from that first clause, this is a cogent description of trial work. But that first clause is, I am afraid, absolutely incorrect. Any attorney who goes into a trial, let alone an appeal, without having a story to tell is asking to lose a possibly winnable case. Further, the specific skills Ms. Lithwick describes as necessary to managing a trial are equally necessary to telling a coherent story. Not every detail makes its way into a story; whether one believes Chekhov's admonition that seeing a gun in the first act requires its use by the third or not, even Finnegans Wake, Ulysses, and Proust are selective in their presentation of details. Subtle details and omissions in dialog and character description enhance or diminish the credibility of every character. I have lost count of the number of novels that attempted to change their actual meaning post-climax; one infamous example is Hawthorne's baldfaced attempt to put some "deeper meaning" into The Scarlet Letter at its close.

My objection is not to the analysis, but to the implicit distinction between "telling a story" and "presenting a good case" (whether defendant or prosecution/plaintiff). The reality is that just as a jury won't believe a sob story without evidence, a jury won't draw the desired conclusion from a morass of exhibits and testimony that is not shaped around a conclusion that supports a verdict. The latter is telling a story.

I think Ms. Lithwick really meant something like "It is a myth that trials are about 'telling one specific story: that your actions, whatever they were, are justified by your life experience'" — for, based upon the opening statement made today, that is exactly what Muhammed is doing.