Melvin Belli, the "King of Torts" who loved the law and the limelight
equally, left behind a legacy of both creative and controversial lawyering.
Among his many books, the five-volume "Modern Trials" is considered
a classic textbook on the demonstrative method of presenting evidence.
His unprecedented -- and some thought undignified -- use of graphic evidence
and expert witnesses later became common courtroom practice.
Belli's breakthrough came as a young lawyer representing an injured
cable car gripman in the late 1930s. Over insurance lawyers'
objections, he brought a large model of a cable car intersection and the
gear box and chain involved in the accident to show jurors what had happened.
His client got a big award.
Often bombastic and a shameless self-promoter, Belli reveled in his
victories. After winning a big case, he raised a Jolly Roger
up a mast on the roof of his landmark building and fired off two blasts
from a signal cannon.
Eschewing modesty, he once said, "There may be better lawyers than I,
but so far I haven't come across any of them in court."
Belli was known as the most famous celebrity lawyer, who had clients
such as the Rolling Stones, Errol Flynn, Jack Ruby, Sirhan Sirhan, Mae
West, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Lana Turner, Tony Curtis and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Belli and his firm advanced $5 million to doctors and expert witneses
on behalf of women against Dow Corning. Dow Corning filed for bankruptsy,
and put Belli's firm in financial trouble. Adding to his troubles
was his $15 million divorce settlement in 1995. Belli filed for bankruptsy
himself that year.
To admirers, he was was a fighter for the little people. To detractors,
he was a shameless self-promoter. There was no disputing his potency
in a courtroom, reflected in six- and seven-figure damage awards, or his
impact on the law.
"I can love a big rich man as much as a poor little man," he once said,
"but there are just a lot more of the poor little men." Belli passed
away in 1996 at the age of 88.