فصل 01

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فصل 01

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Chapter one

The Big Four

High above the water in a modern beach house in Mississippi, four gentlemen enjoyed drinks and waited for a visitor. Normally their work required them to be enemies. This afternoon, however, they’d played golf and eaten grilled seafood together. Each of the men was CEO of a large public corporation. These corporations were extremely successful; the smallest had sales of six hundred million dollars, the largest four billion dollars. Although they manufactured other things, their real profits came from cigarettes - the companies represented here were responsible for 98 percent of all cigarettes sold in the United States and Canada.

The tobacco business was becoming more and more unpopular. The Big Four, as the four corporations were known in financial circles, were attacked by the public, the medical profession and even some politicians. And now, the lawyers were pursuing them. The survivors of dead smokers were suing them, claiming that cigarettes caused lung cancer. There had been sixteen trials. Until now, the tobacco companies had managed to win every case, but the pressure was increasing. If they lost a single one, they’d face possible claims from millions of people.

To help fight these court cases, the Big Four had put together a sum of money called The Fund. The Fund was a secret. Officially, it didn’t exist. The money in it was used to hire the best defense lawyers for the trials. It paid for well-spoken experts to help persuade people that cigarette smoking didn’t necessarily kill you, and the cleverest jury consultants. Before a trial, the jury consultants’ job was to find out all they could about possible jurors, so they could predict whether they might be sympathetic to the tobacco companies’ case or not.

The Fund was managed by a man called Rankin Fitch. The four CEOs disliked him, but they listened to what he said and, when necessary, obeyed the instructions he gave. He’d directed eight trials without a loss. Now they were waiting for him to arrive to tell them about the latest trial, Wood vs Pynex. Pynex was the third largest of the Big Four; its CEO was D. Martin Jankle.

“Fitch is here.” The four men each reached for their drinks as Fitch walked into the room. He was a big man in a dark suit; he looked important. An assistant handed him a glass of water, and he waved away a plate of seafood.

“A brief summary, gentlemen. At the moment, the entire defense team is working non-stop, and this will continue through the weekend. Investigations into possible jurors are on schedule. Trial lawyers are ready, witnesses are prepared, all our experts are already in town.”

“What about the jurors?” asked Jankle. It was his corporations lawsuit, and so he was the most nervous. “One problem juror can be poison.”

“I’m aware of that,” Fitch replied coldly.

“I assume the plaintiff’s lawyers are ready?” asked another CEO.

“Safe assumption,” said Fitch. This latest challenge to the tobacco companies had been organized carefully. There were eight lawyers at the last count, financed by eight of the largest law firms in the country, who’d each contributed a million dollars. The lawyers had picked the plaintiff, the widow of a man named Jacob L. Wood. They’d picked the place, on the Mississippi coast, because juries in Biloxi could be generous in this kind of case. They were even lucky with the judge, the Honorable Frederick Harkin. He’d previously been a plaintiff’s lawyer. The opposition were certainly ready.

This wasn’t an ordinary tobacco case, and everyone in the room knew it.

“How long will the trial last?” Jankle finally asked.

“Four to six weeks. Jury selection goes fast here,” replied Fitch.

“How long should we stay in town?”

“I don’t care. You can leave now, or you can wait until the jury is picked. You all have big jets. If I need you, I can find you.” He was suddenly ready to leave. “Anything else?”

Not a word.

Wendall Rohr, the main lawyer for the plaintiff, had made and lost his first fortune before he was fifty. He made his second fortune and swore never to lose it. His energies were directed at suing American corporations on behalf of injured people. He’d met Celeste Wood, widow of Jacob Wood, through a young lawyer. Jacob Wood had died at the age of fifty-one after smoking three packs of cigarettes a day for almost thirty years.

Rohr had raised the first million dollars to fight the case, and then more money had flowed in. His plan was simple and smart. If he won this case, more people would decide to sue. With a hundred million smokers out there, he’d be busy for the rest of his working life.

Rohr operated from offices near the courthouse, and his team was working hard investigating possible jurors. The tobacco lawyers were down the street working just as hard. Nothing rivaled the thrill of big lawsuits.

By 8 A.M. on Monday, a crowd was gathering outside the Biloxi courthouse. There were Wall Street financial analysts who were specialists in the price of tobacco shares, sent to follow the early developments of the trial. There was a group of people growing larger by the minute, each holding a piece of paper - a jury summons. Seven deputies had been assigned to security duties.

At eight-thirty the doors to the courtroom, on the second floor, opened. A court official, Gloria Lane, checked each summons, greeted the people she knew, and organized them into their seats. There were 194 possible jurors. All were given forms to complete. The lawyers arrived in dark suits, and tried to look at the jurors without being noticed.

Behind the lawyers sat the jury consultants, watching the possible jurors for any gestures - arms folded across the chest, or fingers picking nervously at teeth - which might reveal their real thoughts and opinions. Juror number fifty-six, Nicholas Easter, received more than his share of anxious looks. He worried the jury consultants, as they hadn’t been able to find out very much about him.

The last lawyer into the room was Wendall Rohr. He stared at the possible jurors. These were his people. This was his case, in his home town. He nodded at a couple, grinned at another. Together they’d find the truth.

Rankin Fitch was also in court, pretending to read a newspaper.

Then Judge Harkin arrived. He completed a short welcoming speech. The lawsuit had begun four years ago, and the documents now filled eleven boxes. Each side had already spent millions to reach this point.

The jury selection started. Six people over the age of sixty-five who hadn’t been identified by the computer were free to leave. Five of them left.

“Is anybody legally blind?” the Judge asked. Slowly a hand was raised from the center of the pack. Juror number sixty-three, Mr. Herman Grimes, age fifty-nine, computer programmer, white, married, no kids. What was this? Did nobody know this man was blind? The jury consultants whispered on both sides.

“Mr. Grimes, you are excused from jury duty. You’re free to go.”

Herman Grimes didn’t move. He just looked at whatever he could see and said, “Why do I have to leave?”

“Because you’re blind.”

“I know that. Who says blind people can’t serve on juries? You tell me why. If it’s written in the law, the law is unfair, and I’ll sue. If it isn’t written in the law, I’ll sue even faster.”

The law said that a blind person may be excused from jury service, so the Judge decided not to insist. “On second thoughts, Mr. Grimes, I think you’d be an excellent juror. Please sit down.” Herman nodded politely. “Thank you, sir,”

The Judge continued to release possible jurors with physical problems. At noon, thirteen had been dismissed. By 3 P. M. the number remaining was down to 159. Then the group were asked about any non-medical problems. Eleven more were dismissed, and another form was given out, with instructions to the jurors that they should complete it by nine the next morning.

The form included questions like, Do you smoke cigarettes? Do you want to stop? Has any member of your family, or anyone you know well, suffered any disease or illness directly linked to smoking cigarettes? Other questions explored their opinions on tax and smokers’ rights. Then: Do you know any of the lawyers working on the case? Do you know any of the possible witnesses?

Nicholas Easter made another cup of coffee. He’d spent an hour with the questions last night, and another hour this morning. He knew that handwriting experts would study everything he wrote. He wanted to appear neat, thoughtful, and intelligent, a juror that both sides would love.

Many of the questions had been used in the Cimmino tobacco case last year in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Nicholas had been a possible juror in that case too. But then he’d been known as David Lancaster, a part-time film student with a beard and glasses. He hadn’t been selected for the jury. A month later, he’d shaved his beard, thrown away his glasses, and left town.

Nicholas knew that there were people on both sides trying to find out about his past. His present apartment was only a temporary home. It was basic, but although he had a better address four blocks away, he couldn’t risk being seen there.

In court on the second day, the forms were collected from the possible jurors and six more were excused for personal reasons. Then the show began. Wendall Rohr introduced the plaintiff, Celeste Woods, to the court. A small woman of fifty-five, she tried to look as if she was still saddened over the death of her husband, although he’d been dead for four years. In fact, she’d almost remarried, an event which Rohr had persuaded her to cancel when he heard about it. She could marry after the trial, he told her.

Rohr started questioning the possible jurors about their previous jury service and their opinions on the rights of victims and the price of insurance.

The jury had a lunch break; Gloria Lane and her staff handed out box lunches to the lawyers, containing thin sandwiches and red apples. This was going to be a working lunch for them. Outside the courtroom, forms were being analyzed by the jury consultants and the results were being fed into computers. After three hours’ discussion with the lawyers, the Judge removed another thirty-one names. The group was down to 111.

The following morning, it was the turn of the main lawyer for Pynex, Durwood Cable, senior partner for Whitney & Cable & White. His opponent, Wendall Rohr, was friendly and sociable; Cable, on the other hand, seemed quieter. He talked slowly, but his gray eyes missed nothing.

“My name is Durwood Cable and I represent Pynex, a company that has been making cigarettes for ninety years.” There, he wasn’t ashamed of it! He did an expert job of persuading his audience that his client was almost likeable. Cable then talked about the freedom to choose whether to smoke cigarettes or not. He asked a lot of questions, got a few responses, and finished at noon, in time for a quick lunch.

Before three o’clock, the lawyers on both sides had to agree on the final jury selection. According to the rules, each side could ask for a number of strikes, which meant that a possible juror could be dismissed for no reason. Because of the importance of this case, Judge Harkin had granted each side the right to do this ten times, instead of the usual four. The process started. Out of the first thirty names, ten were selected. Finally, the jury was complete, and Nicholas Easter had become the eleventh juror for Wood vs Pynex.

When the courtroom was opened at three, Judge Harkin called out the names of the chosen twelve. Nicholas, twenty-seven, was the second youngest juror. There were nine whites, three blacks, seven women, five men - one blind. In the corner of the jury box, there were three extra jurors. These would replace any member of the jury who had to leave the jury for some reason.

The Judge forbade the jurors from discussing the case with anyone, and with a pleasant smile, dismissed them for the night.

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