We are starting a new series exploring the lives and careers of legendary litigators and personal injury lawyers that have populated the American legal landscape (and perhaps swelled even larger in the American legal imagination).
It is only fitting that we commence with one of the most famous and ostentatious lawyers in American legal history, Melvin Belli.
The Education of Melvin Belli
Belli attended the University of California Berkeley for his undergraduate education, and enrolled in Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law in 1933. It has been noted by several sources that he did not make the law review and received unimpressive marks in his tort classes. Whatever the reasons were for his perfunctory performance in law school, these were eclipsed by one of the most magnificent legal performances in modern memory.
Melvin Belli: King of Torts, Father of Demonstrative Evidence
Frequently referred to as the “King of Torts,” Belli was the attorney who argued the famous Escola v. Coca-Cola bottling company. Belli also defended Jack Ruby, Eroll Flynn, and other major celebrities.
Another title that attached itself to the lawyer was the “Father of Demonstrative Evidence.” Belli earned this distinction through his continual and innovative use of evidence such as graphics, films, photographs, and other items to illustrate his clients’ injuries to the jurors in court.
Among numerous instances, two are famous.
In his first personal injury lawsuit, Belli represented an injured cable car gripman. During this first case, he first employed a tactic which he would return to over and over again throughout his career: demonstrating to a jury how his client was injured. Despite objections from the opposing lawyers, Belli brought a model cable car intersection along with the chain and gearbox involved in the accident to the courtroom in order to show the jurors how the incident occurred.
A second case involved a young mother whose leg was severed by a trolley in San Francisco. After a jury awarded her $65,000 the opposing lawyers appealed the verdict, claiming the amount was excessive.
Belli appeared in court with a long and slender box, which attracted the attention of the judge, jury, and opposing counsel. All of them were thinking the same thing: did he really have the severed leg of his client, Mrs. Jeffers?
In the final moments of his concluding argument Belli unwrapped the box, revealing his client’s artificial leg. After delivering the final lines of his speech describing the unfeeling limb of his client, with he placed the leg in a juror’s lap.
As the New York Times recounts:
“This time, the jury deliberated for only 20 minutes and awarded Mrs. Jeffers $100,000 — $35,000 more than she got the first time and 10 times the going rate for the loss of a limb in those days.”
Belli’s oratorical skills commended themselves to acting as well.
Other Roles: Melvin Belli in Star Trek
When not playing his part in the drama of human affairs, Belli also appeared in more than a few movies and television shows. He appeared in the 1968 Star Trek episode “And the Children Shall Lead” as Grogan.
Melvin also appeared on the television show Murder, She Wrote. In the popular murder mystery, the lawyer played the role of Judge Harley during the episode “From the Horse’s Mouth.”
Melvin Belli’s Books
Belli also authored over 60 books, including an autobiography My Life on Trial, the popular The Law Revolution, and the informative Modern Trials. Composed between 1954 and 1960 and spanning 6 volumes, Modern Trials has since become essential reading about the method of presenting demonstrative evidence.
Personal Injury Lawyer Who Was Larger Than Life & Even Larger in Death
All told, Melvin Belli’s legal career was innovative, lucrative, theatric, and nearly impossible to truly capture in words.
The New York Times Obituary eulogized him as an “impresario of a lawyer who pioneered new techniques and huge settlements in personal injury cases.”
Perhaps what he once said is still true today: “There may be better lawyers than I, but so far I haven’t come across any of them in court.”