Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Last week the subject of Beverly Young Nelson’s yearbook came up between hands at the bridge table.  Much was being made of the so-called “forgery” by my Republican acquaintances, to which I replied, “Witness for the Prosecution.” None of them knew what I was referring to. Actually, this was the second time I had made that reference, though at a different table against different opponents on a previous occasion.  It was in regard to the woman who told reporters at the Washington Post that she had been impregnated by Moore when she was fifteen, which led to her having an abortion.  It turned out to be a sting operation, apparently by orchestrated by Project Veritas.  My allusion to Witness for the Prosecution likewise met with blank stares. Well, the movie was made in 1957, which was sixty years ago, and not everyone is as much of a movie fanatic as I am, so that failure on the part of my friends to know what I was talking about is hardly surprising.  But the allusion is so apt that I feel compelled to do in this essay what I was unable to do at the bridge table.

In the movie, Tyrone Power has been romancing a lonely widow, who is in her fifties. Shortly after changing her will and leaving her fortune to him, she is murdered. Power claims he knew nothing about her will.  He says he is innocent, that he had been wooing the woman only in hopes that she would advance him a loan so he could develop and promote his invention, an eggbeater that not only beats, but also separates the white from the yolk. Charles Laughton, a barrister, believes him and agrees to defend him in court against a charge of murder.  There is a lot of circumstantial evidence against Power, however, and it is more likely than not that he will be convicted, even though his wife, Marlene Dietrich, would be willing to say he was home on the night of the murder. Laughton figures an alibi provided by a wife would not be worth much, so he decides not to call her as a witness for the defense.

Much to Laughton’s surprise, however, she appears as a witness for the prosecution. She testifies that her husband was not home at the time of the murder, that he came home with blood on his sleeve, and that he confessed to killing the widow. It looks as though Power is doomed.  The court recesses, and somewhat later, Laughton gets word that there is a woman willing to sell some letters that will be helpful to the defense, letters from Dietrich to her lover.  In one of them, Dietrich tells her lover that she will soon be free of her husband, because she intends to make up a story incriminating him, instead of telling the truth, which is that he was at home on the night of the murder.

The next day, with the letters as evidence, Laughton successfully impeaches her testimony.  The result is that Power is acquitted by the jury.  It is then, after the trial is over, that Dietrich tells Laughton that she was the woman he met in the bar to buy the letters from (she had once been an actress and was good at disguises and accents). She said she knew her husband was indeed guilty, and that only by arranging to have her truthful testimony “proven” to be perjury was there any chance for an acquittal.

In other words, if she had testified that her husband was at home on the night of the murder, the jury would have discounted her testimony, and Power would have been convicted on the evidence.  But when she was able to make it look as though her incriminating testimony was perjured, the jury then discounted all the legitimate evidence and found him innocent.

This was clearly the idea behind the woman from Project Veritas.  She would bring forward an attention-grabbing accusation against Moore, and then allow herself to be exposed as a fraud.  Logically, there would be a distinction between her fabricated testimony and the evidence of the legitimate accusers. But more fundamental than reason is the association of ideas, a form of thinking even the lower animals possess. Once the Project Veritas woman had been exposed as a fraud, so the plan went, the accusations of all the other accusers would have acquired the taint of fraud too.

That attempt failed, but then there is the case of Beverly Young Nelson.  After accusing Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was sixteen years old, she produced her high school yearbook with an inscription in it by Moore.  She added a note underneath, stating the date and place of the entry, along with the letters “D.A.” after Moore’s name, a perfectly reasonable thing for someone to do.  Not only that, it is so obviously written in a different handwriting that no one could reasonably suppose it to have been penned by Moore.

Unfortunately, in bringing forth that piece of evidence, she made two mistakes. First, she did not state up front that she had added the note, but rather waited three weeks before admitting that that part of the note was hers. Even though the hyperbolic charge of forgery by Fox News was later retracted, the delay in announcing that that part of the note was hers has nevertheless undermined her case. Second, she allowed Gloria Allred to be her attorney. This mistake may well have been more damaging than the first. Nelson should have hired a local attorney that no one has ever heard of. For a Republican politician in Alabama, being accused of wrongdoing by Gloria Allred is like the rabbit being thrown in the briar patch.

The end result is that these two mistakes on Nelson’s part not only undermine her testimony, but they also, by that primitive association of ideas, undermine the testimony of all the other women.  Had Nelson not come forward, all the emphasis would be on Leigh Corfman’s story.  But now all the stories have become sullied.

In Witness for the Prosecution, Dietrich says early on in the movie that her husband would probably be acquitted, if the jury was composed solely of women, the idea being that Power was so good looking that jurors, especially those who were women, would be looking for any excuse to acquit him.  In a similar vein, many Republicans in Alabama were looking for an excuse to vote for Roy Moore with a clear conscience, and Nelson, acting as an inadvertent Witness for the Prosecution, may have provided them with one.

None of this will help me at the bridge table, if ever I again allude to Witness for the Prosecution, but at least I have been able to say my piece here.

Oh, I guess I shouldn’t leave you dangling about the movie. After being acquitted of murder, Power thanks Dietrich for getting him off, and then tells her he is leaving her for a younger woman.  She stabs him with a letter opener. Laughton says he will defend her against a charge of murder, saying she only executed him.

Whether electoral justice will be served on Roy Moore remains to be seen.

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