The news came by voicemail earlier than expected.
Last Wednesday, Tajie Major left a jubilant message: “Jim, we won!”
Later in a telephone discussion with Jason Rose, associate attorney at the Brayton Purcell law firm who represented Tajie, he explained the jury ruling in favor of her suit against Lorillard Tobacco on behalf of her husband Earl. No one in Jason’s firm could recall any case taking 15 years to actually go before a jury.
The win opened California for more suits against tobacco companies. It was what Earl wanted.
Last Tuesday, I was the first witness of the day.
I do not have a great deal of experience with court procedures. I must admit I have been in traffic court a number of times. I’ve also been a witness in a trial back in 1969. I’ve served on a jury once. That’s it. So I really did not know what to expect.
Gil Purcell, the lead attorney for Tajie began his questioning. I had met Gil shortly after meeting Jason. Both were cordial and intent on doing a good job as well as assuring me I would do just fine as a witness.
What I didn’t expect was to be forgetful. I reviewed my 14-year old, 120 page deposition several times, taking notes, and rereading, especially where I recalled Earl’s smoking habits. As Gil asked me about my time co-located with Earl, I became confused. After Earl and I caught up with each other in Newport, we were together in Long Beach and then San Diego. During that period, Earl was on the U.S.S. England and the U.S.S. Fox. The problem was I couldn’t remember which ship he was on first. I also couldn’t recall the sequence of our time together once I came back to the Southwest corner after my tour on U.S.S. Yosemite in 1985.
Not only was I embarrassed, I became nervous. My throat was dry. My voice became raspy. When the attorneys went to the judge’s chamber for a sidebar, I unsuccessfully looked around for water. Then I spotted several bottles under the table and reached down and grabbed one.
The water was not a usual brand. From one side of the label, I read “From Discovery to Verdict.” The other side read “Litigation Hydration” and confessed is was a product of the “Coalition of Court Reporters of Los Angeles.”
Not only did the water cure my dry throat, it gave me a chance to smile and regain my composure. When the cross-examination began, I held my own. After the trial, Justin and Gil spoke to the jurors. I apparently was one of the jurors favorite witnesses, as well as effective.
I have several thoughts about the experience.
I’m sure which side I was on skewed my perception, but it appeared the tobacco company’s defense team had no tolerance for truth or justice as I define it. The attorney cross-examiner was obviously trying to manipulate my answers to his advantage. He kept misquoting from my 14-year old deposition about Earl’s exposure to asbestos. Tajie was so upset with the defense’s misrepresentations to the jury in final arguments, she could not bear to attend the last morning.
Although my experience is limited, testifying in court is a frustrating experience. I kept trying to recall exactly what happened between 1973 and 1998 because I wanted to “tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Also, even Gil’s questioning did not give me full opportunity to explain what I knew about Earl and his battle with smoking. I left the stand feeling as if I had not served my friend or his widow well. Justin made me feel a bit better about my testimony in our discussion. However, a desire to get it exactly right still sits in a recess in my mind.
Finally, the system impressed me yet again. The jury was a wonderful panoply of our country: different cultures, different jobs, just simply different people. Yet in my brief time with them, they were attentive, almost intense in listening to what I testified. They obviously wanted to do the best they could.
And they got it right.
There may be an appeal. It doesn’t appear likely.
If there’s no appeal, then justice has been served; Earl’s last wish was achieved; and Tajie can get a little rest.
My experience brought back some memories to explore later.
Jim Jewell, a retired Navy commander lives in San Diego but was raised in Lebanon. His book, A Pocket of Resistance: Selected Poems, is now available through Author House, Amazon and Barnes and Noble online. Jim’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.