Corpus Bellicti: It's a question of timing, he says, this business of winning the big negligence cases, of suing for millions in wrongful death and malpractice and personal injury. "You have to know when to release the doves," is the way he puts it.
You have to know that leaving the baldheaded lady on the witness stand throughout her testimony without her wig on isn't half as good as having the baldheaded lady take off her wig at the very last moment. The shock effect is worth thousands. You have to know that if the client is going to collect from the plastic surgeon who sewed her nipples on crooked, well, then the jury had best see those nipples, right there in the judge's chambers. Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt things if the client then stands there, barebreasted and crying, the tears streaming down on those cockeyed nipples, but that's the kind of moment you can't plan for, says Melvin Belli, the kind of moment "when you can hear the angels sing and the cash register ring."
Sometimes there is this bizarre drama in the situation, most of the time there is not. Sometimes the client has lost a leg, and sometimes it's a life that's been lost, but always the situation involves the sudden, breathless shock of life gone terribly wrong. And in comes this white-haired, burly lawyer, barging through the fragile webbing of decorum, flashing the red silk lining of his suits, talking loud and relishing the money that can be had out of the matter, planning the stunts he'll use in the courtroom, arranging his press conference, circling the sorrow, raising the specter of ambulance chasers.
This is not the way Melvin Belli looks at it, although he will say that "at 74, I can beat any ambulance around." The way Melvin Belli looks at it, talking about lawyers profiting from death and disaster is like talking about doctors profiting from calamity, or undertakers, for that matter. They all provide a service; they all get paid. Besides, he says, "the insurance companies never pay what they should. People always get more with a lawyer." Besides, he loves it. Every minute of it. "I like to prepare them. I like to try them. Each new case," says Melvin Belli, "is like opening night." "He's a superb craftsman in the courtroom," says F. Lee Bailey, who also dwells among the denizens of celebrity lawyerhood. It was Belli, says Bailey, who has been responsible See BELLI, C4, Col. 1BELLI, From C1for devising the formula that has substantially increased the damage awards in civil cases. "Because of him, the price of a leg went up 300 percent in Montana alone."
This time it's the Air Florida crash that brings Belli to the Washington branch of his law firm, talking about the big bucks, predicting victory, assigning blame, weighing the worth of lives and putting on the price tags. He says he expects $5 million in general and punitive damages for each of the 10 victims he is representing, although no one has ever been awarded punitive damages in such a case before. He predicts that they'll all be settled out of court. Piece of cake. "Res ipsa loquitur," he says. "The thing speaks for itself."
That's not the case he wants to talk about as he sits in the dining room of the Hay-Adams Hotel, waiting for the second attempt at the soft-boiled eggs he had requested be cooked for only two minutes. After all, he says, "you don't get as much for a wrongful death as you do for a quadriplegic." He should know. Belli says he has 25 quadriplegic cases at the moment, not to mention six homicide cases and "a lot of motion picture work" for, among others, Lana Turner -- "a special client of mine, she wants to make her comeback." There's also a TV series, "The Belli File," that he'd like to see get off the ground, but right now it's run into some problems. " 'Mel,' the producer says to me, 'we're just not about to glorify a living lawyer,' " says Belli. The way he sees it, the man is just being stubborn because the show wasn't his idea.
Melvin Belli has been practicing law for 47 years now and in that time he has become a legend in his own mind, the much-married, lavish-living Mr. Belli, driving his Rolls-Royce, courting the celebrities, hoisting the Jolly Roger over his San Francisco office and firing off a cannon whenever he wins one of his big insurance claims, the man who represented Jack Ruby and Mae West and Martha Mitchell, and lapped up the publicity he promoted.
The Science of Suffering
Lawyers spend a great deal of their time shoveling smoke. -- Oliver Wendell Holmes
He loves telling the stories, of the time he dropped an artificial limb into a juror's lap on behalf of a client who had lost her leg in a streetcar accident, or had a car rebuilt overnight in the courtroom, or brought Conrad Hilton's boat into the courthouse courtyard. Demonstrative evidence, he calls it, the stuff that makes the jury understand in graphic terms just what it means to lose the use of a limb, or what it means to recover from serious burns, the team of nurses on eight-hour shifts, the padded walls to muffle the screaming, that makes them understand the pain and suffering.
"Trying personal injury cases is an enterprise," he says. "It costs a lot of money." In the case of a quadriplegic, he'll make a half-hour movie of a day in his life, from the morning catheter and the bedsores to the problems of bathing and feeding. "You want to show that this fellow has been falsely imprisoned," he says. "You want the jury to appreciate the dignity of life and limb and to appreciate the catastrophe. You have to find a way to picture the suffering to the jury. We show it in detail. We draw it and diagram it. We turned it into a real science."
Or a real circus, depending on how you look at it, but that is not the way Belli looks at it. Justice is served, he says, and he points to the case of the highest award he ever won for a client, $27 million for a pair of infants who were completely paralyzed when they were a day and a half old because of something that was wrong with the penicillin ampules they were given. "They'll live 70 years and in 70 years they'll use every dime of that money."
The ego in all this is as big as the Ritz, naturally. "If you didn't think you were the best, it would be malpractice to go into court with one of these cases. Besides, being someone's sole hope in life, I sort of enjoy that." And no, he never has doubts about the way he handled a case. "If things go wrong, I assume it's the jury or a problem with the facts of the case."
'The King of Torts'
Belli was born in Sonora, Calif., the son of a banker-turned-rancher, just a year after the San Francisco earthquake and fire, when the state was still flushed with the fever of fast money and the wild ways in which it could be won and lost. The way he looks at the world still seems to be informed by the tales with which he grew up, of barrooms and brothels and go-for-broke prospectors, a wide-open world where corruption was not only a fact of life but something of an art form and myths and money were made by the same men.
His first cases came from San Quentin, defending men already condemned to death. It was one such case, he says, that first gave him the idea for the trial tactics that help him make his reputation. "I got a guy in San Quentin, a great big guy, who stomped this little guy to death. They had a beautiful piece of demonstrative evidence, my man's footprint on the other guy's forehead. The big guy pled self-defense; I liked him right away." Belli's client told him that the victim had pulled a knife on him. At first, Belli says, he didn't believe that the inmates carried knives, but when the superintendent showed him a drawerful of confiscated weapons, he changed his mind. Belli subpoenaed the knives. "To this day I don't remember whether it was accidental or on purpose, but when I carried those knives over to the jury box, I stumbled and all those knives fell on the floor, right in front of the jurors. I made sure I took a long time picking them up." The client got off and the lawyer found his calling.
Over the years, the cases grew in both the size of the awards and the celebrity of the clients. He is still particularly fond of the fact that Life magazine once referred to him as the "King of Torts." Over the years, he's had a plethora of multimillion-dollar settlements and his hunger for headlines is no secret, but no, he does not go chasing after solid gold ambulances. "I don't have to," he says, "they come to me." And if it were a really, really big case and the prospective clients hadn't come to him? "I try to find some way to get them. As long as you can get your foot in the door . . ."
Belli has been married four times, mostly recently in 1972 to Lia Triff, who was then a 23-year-old senior at the University of Maryland. His wife, he says, is so busy with state Democratic politics these days that he doesn't see that much of her. "She won't even drive the Mercedes I gave her," he says. "She says it's the wrong image. She drives a Rabbit."
He has written dozens of books that document the life, times, legal tactics and techniques of Melvin Belli, including "Melvin Belli, My Life on Trial," with Robert Blair Kaiser, which does not stint on the more personal side of life as a celebrity lawyer: "Here's my friend Errol Flynn . . . ," read one photo caption. "We were on location in the French Riviera." Or: "After hunting big game on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, the great white hunter needed a bath. Not shown is the countess in the adjoining tub." He has always loved to travel. "I remember Budapest, I was spending six months visiting all the morgues of Europe. They had a club there where all the autopsy surgeons went, there were zither players, and wine and broads; those surgeons were the most loving of life."
The Cannon's Roar
Courtroom: "A place where Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot would be equals, with the betting odds in favor of Judas." -- H.L. Mencken
"A doctor may bind up the physical wounds after personal injury but it is only the plaintiff's lawyer who rehabilitates economically the client, his widow, his children . . . Under our system of jurisprudence, compensation can only be allowed in terms of dollars. We've no system whereby man, after personal injury, can be made whole again, can walk without a limb, sleep without pain." That's what Melvin Belli once told the Mississippi State Bar Association.
Still, it isn't the nobility of purpose, the search for justice, that comes across in Belli's tales of escalating judgments that have climbed from thousands into millions and of the juries that have fallen under his spell. Instead it's the stories of the lion tamer climbing into the ring, wracking his brain for the next unbelievable stunt. Sometimes it's hard to see the justice for the theater, but Belli isn't bothered. At 74, he has no plans to retire. "Why should I?" he says. "I still like hearing that cannon go off."