Tonight, the miniseries Chernobyl (HBO) won the Golden Globe award for Best Miniseries. Actor Jared Harris, who was himself nominated for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for his performance as Valery Legasov, accepted the award on behalf of the producers.
In this special re-podcast of an article from last year, Harris reads excerpts from the idiosyncratic Closing Statement of attorney Vincent Oliver in the rape trial of his client Wyaunte Cousin. This article was first published on August 21, 2019.
As I walk into Department 109 of the Criminal Courts Building, I hear the following words and my ears prick up:
IT WASN’T UNTIL THE REIGN OF RICHARD THE FIRST, WHO YOU PROBABLY KNOW AS RICHARD THE LIONHEARTED, THAT THIS CONCEPT THAT A PERSON ACCUSED OF A CRIME MUST BE PRESUMED INNOCENT UNTIL THE CONTRARY IS PROVEN BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT BECAME THE LAW.
I’m a history buff, and so I am intrigued to find out what this is all about.
I will later learn that the speaker is Bar Panel Attorney Vincent Oliver, a practitioner of criminal law in the city of Los Angeles for over 30 years. His voice, swagger, and physical appearance remind me a bit of the character Artie (played by the late actor Rip Torn) from the 1990s comedy The Larry Sanders Show. Oliver is delivering the closing argument on behalf of his client Wyaunte Cousin, who is on trial for two counts of robbery and four counts of rape — two counts for the rape of Emily A. and two counts related to the rape of Debra M.
As Oliver continues his monologue, I begin to wonder whether his skill at reading the jury is serving his client well.
OLIVER: RICHARD WAS A KING; NO QUESTION ABOUT THAT. BUT HE ALSO WAS A PROGRESSIVE FOR HIS TIME. AND HE BELIEVED IN THIS CONCEPT VERY STRONGLY. HE BELIEVED IN CIVIL RIGHTS.
OLIVER: HE SAID “HENCEFORTH AND FOREVER MORE, BEFORE THE CROWN CAN IMPRISON SOMEONE, BEFORE THE CROWN CAN THROW SOMEONE IN A DUNGEON, THE CROWN MUST PROVE HIS GUILT BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT BEFORE A JURY OF HIS PEERS, AND HE HAS TO BE PRESUMED INNOCENT UNTIL THIS IS DONE.” AND… A GREAT LIGHT SHONE OVER ENGLAND DURING THAT PERIOD OF TIME. IT WAS A MARVELOUS PERIOD UNTIL, UNFORTUNATELY, RICHARD WENT OFF TO FIGHT IN THE WARS, THE CRUSADES, AND WAS KILLED.
I look over at the jurors, and I think I see hints of a few smirks, like “Where is he going with this?”
OLIVER: AND HIS BROTHER, JOHN, ASCENDED TO THE THRONE.
OLIVER: AND A REIGN OF TERROR WENT THROUGH ENGLAND LIKE NOTHING BEFORE UNTIL THERE CAME A POINT IN TIME WHEN THE PEOPLE… GATHERED IN A FIELD OUTSIDE OF LONDON CALLED RUNNYMEDE. AND THEY PRESENTED THE KING’S ARMY WITH 60 DEMANDS WHICH THEY CALLED THE GREAT CHARTER, OR AS WE KNOW IT, THE MAGNA CARTA.
Oliver then proceeds to jump into a soliloquy on the escalating burdens of proof in a court of law, culminating in the concept of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
And then the big reveal…
OLIVER: THE PROSECUTOR DID SAY THAT THE TESTIMONY OF A SINGLE WITNESS IS SUFFICIENT TO PROVE SOMETHING BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. BUT THE PROBLEM FOR HER IS THAT YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE THAT WITNESS. YOU CAN’T JUST LIKE GUESS; YOU CAN’T FLIP A COIN; YOU CAN’T FEEL SORRY FOR THE PERSON. “WELL, I SYMPATHIZE WITH THIS PERSON. I FEEL SORRY FOR THIS PERSON.”
Okay, so Oliver is going to attack the credibility of the witnesses — the alleged rape victims — in an effort to sow doubt in the jurors’ minds. We have seen this done subtly and to substantial effect by Public Defender Brady Sullivan as he cross examined the Sheriff’s deputy Jim Moss in the murder trial of David Martinez (as reported here). But as Oliver proceeds, it seems increasingly unlikely that subtlety is in his tool kit.
OLIVER: NOW WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE CHARACTER OF EMILY A.? EMILY A. IS AN AMORAL PERSON, A REPREHENSIBLE HUMAN BEING, IF YOU FOLLOW THOSE STANDARDS THAT THE JUDGE IS GOING TO GIVE YOU. FIRST OF ALL, SHE IS A WHITE SUPREMACIST. THIS IS THE MORAL POSITION THAT SHE COMES FROM. AND YOU COULD SEE IT FROM THE EVIDENCE. SHE REFERS TO AFRICAN/AMERICANS AS “N———RS.” SHE REFERS TO AFRICAN/AMERICANS AS “N———RS,” (Oliver used the whole word.) AND SHE REFERS TO THE POLICE AS “PIGS.”
Oliver is referring to Emily A.’s habit of using the “n” word in text communications. From what I can glean, Emily, who is white, regularly used the word in chats with her friend Rajon, who is black. Rather than perceiving it as an expression of racism, it seems possible that this may have been an inappropriate but not malevolent case of cultural appropriation.
But Oliver does not stop there in his efforts to tar the reputation of Emily A.
OLIVER: EMILY A. IS A DRUG TRAMP. EMILY A. IS A PERSON WHO GOES OUT AT NIGHT TO HOOK UP WITH A GUY TO USE DRUGS.
OLIVER: AND WHAT’S REALLY DESPICABLE ABOUT THE WHOLE THING IS THAT IT’S A LOW-LIFE DRUG. SHE IS A CRYSTAL METH FREAK. AT LEAST IF SHE WAS A COKE TRAMP, YOU COULD GIVE HER SOME RESPECT. IT IS A SOPHISTICATED DRUG. YOU KNOW, THERE WAS A SONG THAT COLE PORTER WROTE YEARS AGO, AND I THINK IT WENT SOMETHING LIKE THIS: “I GET NO KICK FROM COCAINE. PLAIN ALCOHOL DOESN’T THRILL ME AT ALL.” THIS WAS DURING THE ’30S. AND FRANK SINATRA EVENTUALLY RECORDED THAT SONG AND HE SANG, “I GET NO KICK FROM CHAMPAGNE. PLAIN ALCOHOL DOESN’T THRILL ME AT ALL.” EMILY A. IS A TWEAKER. IT IS A LOW-CLASS DRUG. THAT’S WHAT SHE IS; A DRUG TRAMP WHO LIKES A LOW-CLASS DRUG.
Oliver concludes this eccentric screed against Emily A.’s character by citing her history of lying and her criminal record for burglary.
Then, just before he transitions to attacking the second alleged victim, he almost buries a non sequitur concession:
OLIVER: NOW SOMETHING I CAN’T REALLY DISPUTE IS THAT BOTH OF THESE PEOPLE RECEIVED INJURIES.
Wait, what? Can you go back? Uh… But Oliver has quickly moved on to impugn the credibility of the other alleged victim…
OLIVER: WELL, LET’S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT DEBRA M.
OLIVER: SHE’S A — THE LOWEST OF THE LOW OF PROSTITUTES. THIS IS NOT — WHAT’S — WHAT’S HER NAME? STORMY DANIELS; THIS IS A STREET HOOKER WHO HANGS OUT AT MANCHESTER AND FIGUEROA AND TAKES TRICKS, ACCORDING TO HER TESTIMONY, FOR A HUNDRED BUCKS. BUT SHE SAID SHE WAS KIND OF NEW.
OLIVER: SO SHE MADE A FATAL MISTAKE; SHE DIDN’T GET HER MONEY UP FRONT. SO HE GOT THE GOODS, AND SHE GOT NOTHING. AND THAT’S ENOUGH TO MAKE ANYBODY ANGRY. AND SHE TESTIFIED THAT SHE SOCKED HIM, OR TRIED TO SOCK HIM.
OLIVER: YOU’RE FREE TO BELIEVE THAT THE SOCKING TOOK PLACE AFTER THE TRICK TRICKED HER AND DIDN’T HAVE ANY MONEY, AND GOT HER AND DIDN’T PAY HER AND MADE HER ANGRY, AND SHE SOCKED HIM.
OLIVER: NOW ANOTHER THING THAT IS SOMEWHAT UNBELIEVABLE — AND THE PROSECUTOR SPENT A LITTLE BIT OF TIME ON IT BECAUSE IT IS SO UNBELIEVABLE — THAT A PERSON WHO IS GOING TO BE RAPED SAID “CAN YOU WEAR A CONDOM?” NO. THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN. BOTH OF THESE INCIDENTS WERE CONSENSUAL.
I look at the jurors. The smirks have turned into wide-eyed stillness, as if no one seems sure that they are actually listening to this as the defense of an accused rapist. And then Oliver brings it all home with this conclusion.
OLIVER: AND IF ANYTHING, IF THE DEFENDANT OR THE ACCUSED IS GUILTY OF ANYTHING, HE’S GUILTY OF HAVING A BAD TEMPER AND EXCEEDING THE AMOUNT OF DEFENSE THAT IS NECESSARY TO PROTECT YOURSELF WHERE IT SLIPS INTO THE REALM OF ASSAULT AND BATTERY. SO AGAIN, THE COURT INSTRUCTED YOU THAT YOU HAVE TO PRESUME THE INNOCENCE OF THE DEFENDANT UNTIL THE CONTRARY IS PROVEN BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT.
And with that, the case went to the jury.
After four hours over two days of deliberation, including three requests to have testimony read back to them, the jury found Wyaunte Cousin guilty on all four rape accounts. Cousin was also found guilty of a reduced charge of second-degree robbery. Oliver did secure Cousin’s acquittal on the final robbery charge.