Roll over, Perry Mason.
A preponderance of the evidence suggests that a program titled "The Occupational Traditions of American Trial Lawyers" is a runaway hit at the Smithsonian's American Folklife Festival. It was SRO yesterday in a white tent on the Mall, where a lot of men in gray suits, and a few women, waved their spectacles and paced a courtroom constructed of 2-by-4s in a display of the litigatory arts.
The artists themselves seemed stunned.
"I would have thought that in the atmosphere of the Mall, with the children and grass and trees and the nice summer day, people would not want to sit in a static environment and listen to lawyers," said Ed Stein, a lawyer from Ann Arbor, Mich., who helped organize the exhibition for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.
"I originally thought," said Jo Ann Harris, a former federal prosecutor from New York, "that the people who came would probably all have beefs about lawyers."
Harris played prosecutor in a riveting performance of "State v. Diamond," a homicide case based on an actual trial. The role of the accused -- an ex-cop named Johnny Diamond who shot his estranged girlfriend in a scuffle at the Truck Stop Cafe -- was handled by local actor Bart Whiteman, who took the stand and scowled.
"I said, 'Trudi, I love you very much.' But it was too late. She was already dead."
Harris, cross-examining, shot him a withering glare.
"This story about how Trudi Doyle got two gaping bullet holes in her chest, Mr. Diamond -- let's hear it," she said with a nasty little grin.
Whiteman squirmed. The crowd went wild.
A typical member of yesterday's audience was Charles Bishop, 29, a third-year law student at American University who was there on his lunch hour. "I've come to see these great lawyers display their skills," he said, sotto voce, as he meticulously peeled a hard-boiled egg. And does he want to be a trial lawyer? "I'm not sure yet. That's what I'm here for."
Another case, the fictional "Freeman v. Amerifun Inc.," was a civil suit involving a 7-year-old boy who did himself minor brain damage by swallowing a marble, at 18 months, while playing a child's game called "Marble Mouth."
The counsel for the defense, St. Louis lawyer John Shepherd, was worried about a prospective juror named Samuel Millman, a retired cost analyst for the Army who had inflated his age from 61 to 22204 on a questionnaire by mistakenly writing down his Zip code instead. Shepherd expressed concern over the size of damages Millman might award.
"Should my client be apprehensive?" he grilled Millman. "Those are such big numbers the Army uses."
"I don't think there are any toilet seats involved here," Millman snapped.
Big laugh from the crowd.
Later there was some vituperative byplay between Shepherd and his adversary, the counsel for the plaintiff, Murray Sams Jr. of Miami.
"I don't mind argument or speeches," Sams blustered, interrupting Shepherd's interrogation of the jury, "but not one question has been asked as yet."
"I certainly hope that you're paying more attention than my opponent," Shepherd told the jury, by way of reply.
"Well, I haven't heard one," Sams insisted, "and I've been keeping copious notes."
"It's worse than I thought," Shepherd spat.
If their eyes had a steely cast, it wasn't just for show.
"All of us get into this," explained Lorna Probst, a personal-injury lawyer from Chicago, as Shepherd, in the final throes of his closing argument, was telling the jury: "I'm not here to say that being unconscious is good for you."
Cutting a distinguished figure on the bench was Douglas Hillman, a federal judge from Grand Rapids, Mich. He used his august position to take frequent snapshots with his Nikon -- behavior that would be just cause for ejection by the U.S. marshal in his own courtroom -- and occasionally thumbed the pages of a detective novel he'd brought along.
San Francisco lawyer Harold Rosenthal, a die-hard fan of "People's Court" who served as judge in one of yesterday's proceedings, said it's no coincidence that courtroom dramas are becoming increasingly popular, at least according to independent TV producers with whom he has schmoozed.
He said he wrote the story line for an episode of "Miami Vice," to be titled "Slow Disaster" when it airs next season. "It's going to have people getting blown up, and a lot of pastel-colored Cadillacs attacking people on motorcycles on causeways," Rosenthal revealed. "The only lawyer in it is a real sleaze."
He has also written a screenplay, with fellow performer Barry Scheck, a lawyer from New York, that was optioned by Hollywood, though never produced. It concerns a young woman public defender who becomes emotionally involved with a client in a murder case who happens to be a Vietnam veteran. Called "Hero's Welcome," it was apparently upstaged by "Jagged Edge."
"Ours was better," said Scheck.