PHILADELPHIA—I am not saying a trial is a play, but there are aspects of it that are very much like a stage drama. The first thing one notices upon entering the courtroom of Judge Jeffrey Minehart is the display of hospital artifacts placed in the area between the bench and the attorneys’ tables.
The scene is replete with an operating table, an ultrasound machine, an open filing cabinet, a tangle of wires, and even a dangling blood pressure cuff. One almost expects to be taking his seat for a reenactment of the gruesome abortion procedures that the defendant, 72-year-old Kermit Gosnell, is on trial for, which resulted in the deaths of seven newborns and a woman alleged to have been administered too much anesthesia.
In the old Warner Bros. cartoon, Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf are archenemies from 9 to 5 but quietly punch the time clock at the end of the day and bid each other a polite good night. In the trial at the Criminal Justice Center at 13th and Filbert streets, it is interesting to watch Assistant District Attorney Edward Cameron playfully spar with defense counsel Jack McMahon right up to the moment Judge Minehart enters the room, and then see them instantly transform themselves into each other’s nemesis.
On April 1, before I knew the players, I was close enough to overhear Cameron as he walked up to McMahon and say the trial would be postponed for the day because a juror’s daughter had just given birth to a premature baby and her family and the hospital were taking all possible means to save the child. McMahon couldn’t tell if he was serious, and when he discovered it was a joke, was not particularly amused.
Other court theatrics I learned from a seasoned court watcher from Philadelphia Magazine who sat behind me. These included the coached responses of defendants, for the benefit of the jury. Also of interest was the recess-time camaraderie among the crime scene unit officers and the defense team, and the way the lawyers and the press all seemed to know each other. It was hard for me to tell—when everybody was “on,” and when tempers were back to flaring—whether that was the act, or whether the affability between the preening and tempers was the act.
One can only hope that out of this cocktail of drama, posturing, schmoozing, and folksy familiarity will be distilled, at day’s end, a quality of justice worth serving up to the public.