The 5 Most Surprising Witnesses to Testify in Court
Trials generally don’t have “surprise witnesses” in the way they do on TV, thanks to discovery and witness lists and a process that’s not very entertaining to watch at all. But who cares whether some lawyer is surprised by who testifies? We’re a lot more interested in whether you are surprised by who testifies, when you hear about the trial years later. You probably never would have guessed, for example, that...
Richard Nixon Testified in Defense of Deep Throat
Six years after resigning as president, Richard Nixon was in court delivering testimony. No, he wasn't being grilled about his own crimes. He was there testifying on behalf of W. Mark Felt, who’d been the number two guy at the FBI while Nixon was in office. Felt stood accused of a most Nixonian offense: authorizing illegal break-ins. While Felt was in the FBI, with L. Patrick Gray at the head, the agency searched the homes of relatives of the domestic terror group the Weather Underground. Agents opened up drawers and took photos of people’s diary entries and love letters, in a warrantless operation that produced zero useful intelligence but lots of erotic reading material.
Nixon testified that Felt had received the go-ahead from above for these break-ins. We’re not sure this would make his actions legal, and it might do nothing but implicate Nixon as well in the crime, but that’s what Nixon said. He also spoke more broadly about how the Vietnam War protesters in the Weather Underground were super dangerous, which justified anything the government had done and more. A spectator in the crowd screamed “War criminal!” during his testimony.
Shockingly, the endorsement of model citizen Richard M. Nixon was not enough to convince the court that Felt had acted legally. They convicted him. A few months later, however, Ronald Reagan pardoned Felt, reasoning that hey, Jimmy Carter had pardoned Vietnam draft dodgers, so surely it was okay to pardon folks who’d protected us from those kinds of people.
A former president testifying in court is a pretty big deal, and would make for quite a story even if it just ended there. Decades later, however, well after Nixon died, the world learned that Mark Felt had been Deep Throat, the crucial source Woodward and Bernstein had used when breaking the Watergate scandal. The Nixon White House had suspected Felt at one point, but we doubt Nixon did in 1980, or else he wouldn’t have testified for (and also contributed money toward) the man’s defense.
“Deep Throat,” in case anyone didn’t know, had been meant as a humorous alias, referring to a deep insider while also referencing a movie from a famous porn star. This was a time when mentioning a porn star when discussing a presidential scandal was a subversive joke rather than just direct reporting.
An Accused Sex Criminal Brought in a Porn Actress
Speaking of porn stars, let’s talk about the time someone had to bring one in to prove the porn he’d watched was legal. Carlos Alfredo Simon-Timmerman was returning from Venezuela in 2009 when U.S. customs agents discovered a DVD in his luggage. The disk was titled Little Lupe La Inocente — Que No Te Engañe Su Carita de Bebe. That translates as “Little Lupe the Innocent – Do Not Be Fooled by Her Baby Face.”
The man was trafficking kiddie porn, they concluded, and they arrested him. No, said Simon-Timmerman, it was just plain old legal porn, only with an actress who was advertised as having a young face. In case any of you are wincing at the thought of an actress who looks like a six-year-old thanks to some genetic condition even if she’s 18, let’s go ahead and share a photo of her from around this time:
Simon-Timmerman insisted that the prosecutors investigating him could clear all this up in a few minutes just by looking up the actress online. This wasn’t some weird underground recording — she had also done work in the U.S., where agencies had to document her age. We will not look her up, said the prosecutors, calling such an endeavor a fishing expedition that they couldn’t be forced into doing. Instead, prosecutors said they would bring in a doctor who’d watch the film and judge whether it contained any children, based on such factors as everyone’s height and whether they had visible pubic hair.
The defense lawyer got the actress, Lupe Fuentes, on the phone to talk to the prosecutors, but that wasn’t enough to convince them. So, the defense had to get her to fly in and show up in person to testify and demonstrate that she was a real person and 23 years old. Prosecutors dropped charges now that Simon-Timmerman had proven his innocence. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if we had some hypothetical system where we had to presume innocence until the other side meets their burden?
The Inventor of TV Brought in His High School Science Teacher
The television was invented by a whole lot of different people working independently. Many sources list the inventor as John Baird, whose company was behind a bunch of TV milestones. The first ever electronic television transmission, however, came from an inventor named Philo Farnsworth. By the 1930s, he claimed that he was owed royalties from anyone who manufactured TVs. That included RCA, who had a guy with a patent that predated anything Farnsworth had done.
Farnsworth took RCA to court. He argued that even if this rival scientist, Vladimir K. Zworykin, had beaten him to a patent, Farnsworth had had the idea first, when he was just a boy, so the invention was his. We don’t think that’s how patent law normally works, but that’s what Farnsworth argued, and to prove his claim, he brought in the chemistry teacher who had taught him when he was just 14. The teacher was named Justin Tolman and had let young Farnsworth attend a class that was a few years ahead of him.
Yes, testified Tolman, Farnsworth had conceived of a television transmitter while still in school. He’d also provided the best explanation of relativity his teacher had ever heard (this was not relevant to the case but was still surprising, especially as relativity was such a new concept). Farnsworth hadn’t actually built a TV back then, true, but neither had Zworykin anytime soon after getting his patent. Most convincingly, Tolman provided a sketch that he said the student had drawn back then of an electronic tube, which would go on to be the camera tube Farnsworth manufactured. This convinced the court. They awarded rights to the TV to Farnsworth.
The bond between Tolman and Farnsworth was the closest one we’ve ever seen between a chemistry teacher and his student that didn’t also involve cooking meth. And Farnsworth’s victory in this case should inspire us all. Remember in fourth grade, when you drew that doodle of a spaceship with detachable legs that can safely extract oobleck from an alien planet? It means that when NASA starts extraterrestrial mining, half of all proceeds are legally yours.
The Prince of Wales Testified in a Gambling Trial
One night in 1890, the Prince of Wales was playing baccarat at a party in Yorkshire. Also present was a baronet with the unfortunate name of Sir William Gordon-Cumming, and the others at the party accused him of cheating. He had been periodically adding chips to his bets, and depending on when he did this, that could be fine or blatant rule-breaking. Sir William said he was merely raising his stake after each win, a common betting strategy that maximizes your gains from hot steaks. The others said he was raising on wins before the house paid him, so they’d pay him more, a form of cheating called past posting.
He agreed to quit baccarat forever if everyone else present would sign an agreement to never speak of the incident again. Several others at the party then promptly did speak about the incident to everyone they knew so Sir William sued them — not for breach of contract but for slander.
The court called in the Prince of Wales as a witness. This was remarkable. A royal like him hadn’t been forced to testify in 600 years. He spoke on Sir William’s behalf, and rather than just defending him from the cheating accusation, he said that no one had gambled at all. They’d bet money, but they hadn’t gambled. “There is no harm in playing cards for money in itself,” he said. “Gambling, as I understand the word, is hateful to me.” This is unassailable logic. Gambling is bad, and the Prince liked betting, so betting can’t be gambling.
A decade later, the prince would become Edward VII, King of the United Kingdom. Sadly for Sir William, this trial was another case where the testimony of a sometime head of state was not enough to convince anyone. The court ruled against him. In addition to forgoing the compensation he’d sought, Sir William was subject to the harshest penalty available to him: social ostracization. He had to quit four different clubs.
Mr. Rogers Gave Testimony that Went to the Supreme Court
As loyal citizens of the internet, you have surely already seen a famous clip of Fred Rogers delivering testimony to the government. It was 1969, when he spoke to Congress and got them to approve funding PBS.
The man also testified in a court case that ultimately reached the Supreme Court. Fifteen years had passed since his visit to Congress, and a new technology had arrived to make TV watching easier: the VCR. In letting people copy television broadcasts, the VCR also allowed flagrant copyright infringement, argued Universal Studios. They were suing Sony and hoping to make the VCR illegal — or rather to make it into a device that played commercial tapes but couldn’t record anything. Step one was to formally declare it illegal for people to record broadcasts.
Sony brought in Mister Rogers to weigh in. First, he talked about how the VCR benefited families by letting them watch his show when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Then he said it’s good for people to have more power in this way. “Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others,” he explained, which is a startling statement from him out-of-context and pretty startling in context as well. “My whole approach in broadcasting has always been, ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions.’ ... I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”
This testimony didn’t quite address any of the plaintiff’s points. No one was questioning whether the VCR benefited those who used it (of course it did) or benefited the world overall. The question at hand was whether recording broadcasts constituted copyright infringement and hurt broadcasters economically.
That’s why it’s so surprising that the Court cited this testimony in their decision. They ruled that if people tape shows “such as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and if the proprietors of those programs welcome the practice,” then those who objected to people taping their stuff were just a few whiners who could be safely dismissed.
Looking back, we can say, sure, no one should ban the VCR, but also, it’s dubious to call the perspective of Fred Rogers, a saint devoted to public service, representative of the views of broadcasters in general. Sometimes, even when courts reach decisions we like, they do so using the power of make-believe.
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