BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in this case one great newspaper has chosen to present reality in the form of fiction. Increasingly, we expect real life to deliver thrills, once the sole province of fiction, as in TV courtroom dramas torn from the headlines.
MAN: The highest moral bar in our culture is "Thou shalt not kill." And where we live, killing in the name of God, country, or brother is still called murder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But when real life juries, bred on TV's "Law and Order" take their places in the courtroom, their verdict on the experience is likely to be two thumbs down. What's a lawyer to do? Call script consultant Neal Howard. He's worked as a TV writer for shows like "King of Queens" but for the last three years he's applied his writing skills to the courtroom. Neal, welcome to the show.
NEAL HOWARD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did this marriage of your writing background and courtroom consulting begin?
NEAL HOWARD: I was watching the Bush/Gore election coverage, actually the struggles in the courtroom, and I was struck by the fact that these were supposed to be some of the best trial lawyers in the country that were presenting these cases. And I was just doing press from my perspective as a writer, a dramatist, somebody who's spent a great deal of time in communications. Shortly thereafter I happened to meet Andrew Sheldon who is a well-respected, longtime trial consultant who happened to be working on the Birmingham church bombing case. He thought that the prosecutors on that case would welcome all the help that they could get. And they were very receptive. And we went to work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in that trial of Thomas Blanton for the 1963 church bombing. What were the compelling narrative elements that the prosecutors may not have seen but you did?
NEAL HOWARD: In most of these civil rights trials time is really the most difficult issue, the long passage of time. The sense of relevance and immediacy that is needed to heighten emotion in a courtroom is often lost. You're also dealing with very old evidence, missing evidence, testimony that's being read in transcript, as opposed to live witnesses. The two things that you need to do in order to put the narrative in place is figure out how to tell the best story that you can tell, given the evidence that you have. Then you can begin to actually craft rhetoric that can play out in a trial theme or over the course of an opening or a closing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you look for those clear illustrations.
NEAL HOWARD: You might come across a fact like that fact that the force of the blast was equivalent to roughly 20 sticks of dynamite. Well, that's a fact that you can lay out in front of the jury plainly like that, or you can say, "That really was five sticks per girl. That's what the defendants calculated it would take to kill each of those children, to destroy hope, to destroy a dream, to destroy a future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you also look to create clear heroes and villains? It's not hard in that case, God knows.
NEAL HOWARD: Even in that case it is difficult because the defendant that is sitting in the courtroom is now a senior citizen and looks like anybody's grandfather. So one of the narrative tricks is to take the audience back in time, the jury back in time, and recreate the scene so that the villain is there in a very palpable and threatening way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Were there any trials in which finding the winning themes was a very difficult task? Can you give me an example of when you found it and you said that's it?
NEAL HOWARD: In the Mississippi burning trial that just took place, where Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter, you're faced with a problem like the passage of time. And how do you turn that into advantage? So something like, "No amount of time can forgive their crime," or that they counted on the passage of time to get away with their crime. Time becomes a getaway car. They counted on the existence of racism over the years that would get in the way of a vigorous prosecution of what they had done, things like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, some people say that TV has shortened our attention spans, and others say that complicated movies show that audiences can follow a complex story, if there's suitable drama. So in your experience, what kind of narrative structure moves juries most?
NEAL HOWARD: That really depends on the facts of the case. And then you can make a decision, well does this need to be told in a traditional sense, starting at the beginning and working your way through the middle and up to the end? Or do you want to do something more along the lines of a "Pulp Fiction" or a "Memento" and work from the middle, or work backwards, or jump around? And I think that that's something that attorneys may not necessarily have the training in that a writer would. Part of the mistake that people make is only assuming that jurors, who are really just a reflection of the viewing population of television and film, that the only reason that they're watching those dramas is because they're well written. People have an inherent interest in justice. Justice is something that we're very passionate about, as opposed to, let's say, the finer legal points of the case, which is where the attorneys often spend their time. What jurors are interested in is mostly the spirit of the law, and that justice is done.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aren't some juries so accustomed to courtroom dramas that they're also cynical about lawyers and their motivations and very attuned to real versus fake emotional appeal?
NEAL HOWARD: Absolutely. And I daresay that perhaps their cynicism might come more from media coverage of [LAUGHS] real life trials than it does necessarily from the world of fiction. But nonetheless, yes, they are much more astute at detecting things that don't ring true or insincerity. That's the job of a good writer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've spent time Hollywood, you've spent time in the courtroom. How long before you start writing courtroom dramas, based on cases where you've been a consultant?
NEAL HOWARD: I might write a script based on a writer turned trial consultant-- [LAUGHTER] --with some fictional cases, perhaps.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So who would you want to play you in the movie?
NEAL HOWARD: The script that I'm writing, actually, it's Al Pacino.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] All right!
NEAL HOWARD: But I would be, I would be absolutely thrilled if Paul Giamatti would--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
NEAL HOWARD: --would also consider the part.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Neal Howard, thank you very much.
NEAL HOWARD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Neal Howard is a script writer, and a trial consultant in Chicago. (MUSIC)
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Mike Vuolo, and Jamie York, and edited by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Andy Lanset, Simon Jones, Sarah Dalsimer and Josh Nathan Kazis [?]. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.