JAN 23 & 24, 2015: "Justice and Injustice: The Consequences of Storytelling in the Courtroom"

Department: Literary Journalism

Date and Time: January 23, 2015 - January 24, 2015 | 8:00 AM-8:00 AM

Event Location: UCI School of Law

Event Details

Join the Literary Journalism Program, the School of Humanities, and the School of Law for the first conference to emerge from a new interdisciplinary initiative, the Forum for the Academy and the Public.  Friday's Keynote Speaker is Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and professor at New York University School of Law.

When:  Friday and Saturday, January 23 and 24, 2015
Where:  UC Irvine's School of Law

Open to the public.  

Contact:  piersonp@uci.edu; (949) 824-6876

Reservations are encouraged as seating is limited.  Visit this page to reserve a seat:


Schedule of Panels and Talks:

Justice and Injustice: The Consequences of Storytelling in the Courtroom

January 23 and 24, 2015

January 23, Friday:

Welcome coffee

3:45: Introductory remarks: Amy Wilentz, author and co-founder of the Forum for the Academy and the Public

4:00 PM Kickoff Panel
Controlling the Narrative

Jeff Robinson, speaker
Bobby Grace, Linda Deutsch, Barry Siegel
Moderator: Miles Corwin

Jurors listen to storytellers, who each try to control the narrative, to impose their narrative line, or take, on the messy, ambiguous pile of evidence. Jurors must then reduce that messy ambiguity to a clear black-and-white verdict (the “truth”). They do this, essentially, by deciding whose narrative to believe, whose subjective take is the true story. All narrative is argument.

Recent events to consider, perhaps: the non-indictments in Ferguson and the Staten Island choke-hold; the problems in rape prosecutions and the Rolling Stone/University of Virginia story.

5:45 Introduction of keynote speaker by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of UCI’s School of Law

6:00 Keynote speech Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative


January 24, Saturday:

8:00 AM: coffee

8:30: Panel 2
Death Penalty Narratives: High Stakes and the Need for an Ending

Michael Connelly, speaker
Mike Farrell, Celeste Fremon, Erwin Chemerinsky
Moderator: Barry Siegel

In death penalty cases there is even more pressure than usual on prosecutors to resolve things – not only to fix on a story but to identify an “ending” to that story. The defense is trying to look beyond the facts to the human being – to create empathy for the defendant, while the prosecutor works hard to portray the defendant as the “other,” an other for whom there is no further chance for redemption. As Bryan Stevenson puts it in his new book, Just Mercy, the prosecutor wants jurors to “hate not just the sin but the sinner.” Thus, part of the narrative here involves the high-stakes development of a biography of a protagonist or villain, or what we call in literary journalism “the art of the profile.” As dramatically discussed in Sarah Koenig’s Serial report on NPR, is it fair to say that the role of police and prosecutors in capital cases is to “build a case” against a defendant, rather than to unearth the truth?

10:00 Coffee Break

10:30: Panel 3
The Role of Science in Courtroom Narratives

Elizabeth Loftus, speaker
James McGaugh, Jon Eisenberg, Michael Grossberg
Moderator: Erika Hayasaki

Often, what jurors are led to believe is hard evidence is anything but that. According to the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, evidence regularly used in the courtroom (fingerprints, ballistic traces, teethmarks, etc.) can be convincingly challenged. Forensic science, the NAS argues, is more art than science. What is more, in 2014 the NAS issued a report that also questioned the reliability of eyewitness testimony. As has been established, eyewitness testimony accounts for 72 percent of wrongful convictions. Memory, on which eyewitness testimony relies in part, is complicated, but narrative reconstruction in the courtroom as well as in creative nonfiction relies on memory. So it is worth considering just how memory works, and how it can be deleted, altered, and invented – unknowingly.

12:30 LUNCH
Luncheon speaker: Philip Meyer, author of Storytelling for Lawyers

1:30 Panel 3
Turning a Villain into a Victim (and vice versa)
Linda Edwards, speaker
Gloria Killian, Howard Weitzman, Gary Bostwick
Moderator: Henry Weinstein

The best story line is the one that naturally makes sense to people, and by extension, to jurors. Here’s one that may sound familiar: An evil villain wreaks havoc on innocent and helpless people; a brave hero fights the villain, facing great danger. In the end, the hero kills the villain, thus restoring order. But this is not a recipe for a movie script; as Linda Edwards has argued, it is “the foundation for nearly every brief” filed by prosecutors in criminal appeals. Meanwhile defense attorneys like to play up the victimhood of their clients. Proving that for our species, character is central. But what exactly, in the collection of mythic stories humans recognize, constitutes a villain, what a victim? What special narrative “tricks” and “ploys” do lawyers use to lead jurors into accepting their version of character?

3:00 Coffee Break

3:30: Panel 4
Creating a Coherent Narrative: What Happened and Whodunit?
Paul Barrett, speaker
Brook Thomas, Hector Villagra, Philip Meyer
Moderator: Amy Wilentz

Competing narratives can befuddle a jury, and often come into play, also, when dollar judgments are awarded. What happens when a prosecutor goes too far — sometimes way too far — in working to develop a sensible or a dramatic or a simple, coherent narrative? Sometimes it can be a case like the Central Park Five, in which confessions are coerced and evidence made to support a narrative that never happened. Sometimes it’s a case like Steve Donziger’s against Chevron in the Amazon, in which the ostensible “good guy” politicks and manipulates evidence against an almost universally acknowledged “bad guy.” There are very real risks to both sides in the overzealous development of a single and pure narrative of a case. Yet how else do we go about proving what really happened and who actually done it?

Closing comments
Barry Siegel, author of Manifest Injustice and Director of UCI’s Literary Journalism Program