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THE LAW IS A ASS for 01/28/2003

"The Law is a Ass" Installment # 181

Originally written as installment # 161 and published in Comics Buyer's Guide issue # 804, April 14, 1989 issue

Two things for the record.

First: neither Paul Drake, Jr. nor Michael Reston ever appeared again in any of the made-for-TV Perry Mason movies. Ken Mullansky and Amy Hastings served the function of padding out an hour-long Perry Mason episode into a two-hour movie with not-particularly-ept sleuthing and comedy relief for two more movies. Than Amy Hastings left the series and Ken Mullansky served for the rest of the series the triple purposes formerly served by Paul Drake, Jr. of padding a standard hour-long Perry Mason plot into two hours with comedy relief by providing scenes of not-particularly-ept sleuthing and even-less-ept skirt chasing.

Second: how dated is a column which uses The Satanic Verses as a closing joke?


Installment # 181

Sometime, when I wasn't looking, February snuck up on me. February, the longest month of the year.

I don't care that the calendar says February only has twenty-eight days--or twenty-nine, when the gods are feeling particularly sadistic. February is the longest month.

February starts out badly. Punxatony Phil sticks out his mangy, misbegotten little head and announces to those of us who don't ski and wish that those who do would move to the mountains and leave the rest of us the hell alone, we have another six weeks of winter. (Why did we delegate forecasting how many miserable weeks of winter remain to a rodent?) February--with its perpetual gun-metal gray sky, its bone-marrow-chilling winds, its drifting, traffic-gnarling snow, and its promise of financial ruin found in the unpaid Christmas bills and dawning tax season--immediately gets worse. Then there's February's television.

February, you see, is a ratings sweeps month; when the networks preempt the few shows I can still watch with endless mini-series featuring more skin than an Idaho potato farm and more blood than a rare steak. I wouldn't mind, if the mini-series weren't all based on best-selling, pot-boiler novels, I didn't want to read in the first place. Thank you ABC NBC CBS for bringing them into my house with all the charm of a charging rhinoceros.

Still, for the past few years, the February sweeps has meant a new Perry Mason movie. February, 1989 was no exception. "The Case of the Lethal Lesson" found Perry as an adjunct professor of trial tactics at the McLaren School of Law, located just outside of Denver, Colorado. Most of these Perry Mason movies have been set in or near Denver. Why has Perry forsaken Los Angeles and practically moved to Denver? I suspect he's courting the lucrative Blake Carrington account.

Although most of the usual elements were there, there were two conspicuous absences. Michael Reston--the prosecutor played by David Ogden Stiers--and Paul Drake, Jr.--Perry's private investigator played by William Katt--were both missing.

Stiers was, no doubt, filming The Accidental Tourist. He decided to do a theatrically-released movie that could win this year's Best Movie Oscar than another Perry Mason. There's loyalty bor you.

Katt, on the other hand, was starring in another made-for-TV sweeps movie, Swimsuit; an even more difficult choice than Stiers's was. Do I go to Denver and look at Raymond Burr's ugly beard and cellulite, or stay in Malibu and look at babes in bikinis?

I wasn't sorry. Paul Drake, Jr. is a distraction. While purportedly serving as Perry's information gatherer, Paul's real function is to pad a standard hour-long Perry Mason plot into two hours with scenes of not-particularly-ept sleuthing and even-less-ept skirt chasing. He adds to what was a cerebral and tightly-plotted TV show of the Fifties the hallmark of Eighties' TV--the car chase.

The story centered around Frank Wellman, Jr.--one of Perry's trial tactic students and the son of a long-time friend of Perry's, Frank Wellman, Sr. Junior was not a good student. He couldn't get into law school, until Daddy made significant cash contributions to the school's building fund. Frank, Jr. had the makings of a first-class presidential candidate, but for one problem--he was the murder victim.

As always suspects abounded; all of them students in Perry's class in the middle of Perry's final exam, which was not a test but a mock trial. The murder interrupted the exercise. (It doesn't take anything as drastic as murder to interrupt me, when I exercise. Spotting a new ball of carpet lint usually does it.)

Perry's client was Ken Mullansky. Ken learned from fellow student Donna Layman, that his girl friend, Kim McDonald, was almost raped by Frank, Jr. Ken went into a rage and went looking for Frank, who he knew was practicing his closing statement in the moot courtroom. When Ken got there, both he and the Security Guard heard Frank practicing behind the closed, locked doors of the courtroom. Ken broke in. The Guard called Campus Security, the followed Ken in. The Guard found Ken kneeling over Frank's dead body--Ken's knife stuck squarely in Frank's back.

The other suspects included Kim McDonald; her twin brother, Scott, who is closer to his sister than a Siamese twin--they went to the same undergraduate school, the same law school, and take the same courses; Donna Layman; Jeff Thomas, another law student; and Eugene, the technician who installed and ran the video equipment in the moot courtroom. Their motives were, respectively, the attempted rape; Frank's blackmailing Scott because Scott plagiarized term papers; Frank courting Donna so she'd write his term papers for him then dumping her; Frank snaking a job Jeff wanted by telling the prospective employers Jeff had a drug problem; and Frank knowing Eugene used the video equipment to pirate unreleased blockbuster movies.

Ken asks Perry to defend him. Perry has a crisis of faith. Does he represent the man accused of killing his old friend's son--risking the friend's wrath; or does he make his friend happy, duck the case, and give it to some less-competent lawyer, like Ben Matlock? Well, Brian Keith played the friend, so Perry defended Ken. What was Brian Keith going to do, sic Mr. French on Perry?

Perry's investigation does not go well. With Paul Drake missing, Perry's client and Amy Hastings--an attractive, rich, intelligent former-fiancee Ken inexplicably dumped so he could go to law school--do the jobs of investigating the crime poorly and padding the movie with bad comic relief.

Ken and Amy find their only clue, when it literally runs over Amy. Eugene, who was looking for the pirated video tape he lost in the courtroom, bolts and bowls Amy over, when she was snooping around. Amy and Ken figure Eugene has something to do with the crime and track him down.

The trial--okay not a trial; a preliminary hearing where a judge determines if there's enough probable cause to bind Ken over to the Grand Jury for formal indictment on murder charges--goes badly for Perry. Don't they always, at first?

Only Ken and his classmates knew Frank, Jr. would be in the moot courtroom, so only he--or one of his classmates--could have murdered Junior. The Security Guard testifies that both the front and back door to the moot courtroom were locked, so no one other than Frank and Ken could have been in there. Perry reminds the Guard of a night two months ago, when he set off the alarm in his security apartment, because he had mislaid his keys and had to break in. Was he missing his keys long enough for someone to make a duplicate key to the back door of the moot courtroom? We don't know, the D.A. claims the question asks for speculation. Like the Guard never duped a key before and has no idea how long it would take? It was about as speculative as buying X-Men futures.

Ken's roommate, Travis, testifies that on the night of the murder, Ken stormed in at 7:12, tore up the apartment looking for his knife, found it, and left in just enough time to get to the moot courtroom for the 7:30 murder.

"What if I told you Ken received a speeding ticket at 7:12?" asks Perry holding up a piece of paper. Ah yes, the old Perry Mason bluff. He picks up some innocuous piece of paper--like a request from his law school Alumni Office for a donation--and pretends it's key evidence to get the witness to admit he's lying. I've seen it dozens of times in the Perry Mason canon.

So has Travis. He asks to see the paper. Uh oh. What will Perry do? He shows Travis the paper. It really was a speeding ticket that Ken received at 7:12. Another perjurer caught.

Perry accuses Frank, Sr. of bribing Travis to perjure himself and insure Ken's conviction. Perry has a letter from Travis's bank confirming the transaction. Frank, Sr. admits the bribe. He asks Perry what he's going to do.

I knew what Perry was going to do. Bribing a witness to perjure himself is a felony and a fraud on the court. Perry was ethically bound by the Code of Professional Responsibility and legally bound by Colorado laws requiring citizens to report crimes to turn Daddy over to the authorities. Naturally, he would.

Wrong again, Law-Book-Dust Breath. Perry uses the letter to force Frank, Sr. into testifying. If Daddy will testify about all of Junior's past peccadillos, Perry will return the letter.

To say I was troubled is to say Krakatoa was just loud. Not only has Perry violated an ethical duty by not reporting a fraud upon the court, not only did he break the law by not reporting a felony; he committed another crime by extorting Frank, Sr. into testifying. I guess when hen your usual investigator's making a documentary on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, you use unusual tactics.

Frank, Sr. finishes. Perry gives him the letter. It turns out this one really wasa request from Perry's law school Alumni Office for a donation. Frank, Sr. should have spend less time in board meetings and more time watching the Perry Mason re-runs

The prosecutor objected to the evidence about Frank, Jr.'s history on the grounds of relevance. Perry argued he was entitled to probe the victim's past to prove other people had motive to kill him. The Judge has been watching the Perry Mason re-runs. She knows when Perry's cooking, all prosecution objections are overruled--even those that should be sustained.

Yes, sustained. This was only a probable cause hearing, not a trial. The state only had to prove there was enough probable cause that Ken had committed the crime, not guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The fact that other people also had motives--while relevant in an actual trial--doesn't lessen the probable cause against Ken. Other people's possible motives were irrelevant to the probable cause inquiry before the court.

With time running out, Perry makes the miraculous, if not convoluted, deduction that someone got Eugene to show him how to work the video equipment in the moot courtroom, stole then duplicated the Security Guard's keys, stole Ken's knife, goaded Donna into telling Ken about the attempted rape on Kim so that he would come looking for Frank that night, used the duplicate key to sneak in the back door of the moot courtroom without being seen, taped Frank practicing his argument, killed Frank, waited until he heard Ken coming, played back the tape so it would seem like Frank were still alive, then snuck out the back door as Ken broke in. In order to get the evidence he needed, Perry had Eugene arrested for video piracy. Perry would have enough leverage to force Eugene to tell them who he trained to use the video equipment. Then, Perry could use his court-room wiles to extract an in-court confession from the real murderer.

Eugene cracked faster than a cheap Easter egg. But he did it off-camera. Why? So we wouldn't know who the real murderer was and would be surprised by the obligatory in-court confession.

Who confessed? I'm not telling. Just consider that through the course of their joint investigation, Ken fell back in love with Amy. The writers needed a device to write Kim McDonald out of Ken's life forever. And consider also that Kim and brother Scott did everything together. That's how I figured out who the murderers were. It certainly wasn't from the clues scattered about in the story--there weren't any clues. This whodunit played about as fair as a World Wrestling Federation tag team.

So, how did Perry deduce his marvelous, if not convoluted, solution; which depended on such uncontrollable variables as Frank, Jr. practicing in the moot courtroom instead of his own apartment, being able to manipulate Donna into telling Ken about the attempted rape on a specific night and at a specific time, and Ken confronting Frank, Jr. instead of doing the more natural thing of talking to his girl friend or calling the police? I don't know. Perry never explained his reasoning. I guess he figured it was the only solution which kept Eugene's character from being superfluous.

I have two wrap-up comments to make about "The Case of the Lethal Lesson." Perry, lose the comedy-relief investigators--be they Paul Drake, Jr. or your client. They detract from what was a wonderful, cerebral, and tightly-plotted mystery program in the Fifties and make your current movies unworthy pretenders.

And, Perry, lose the beard.


BOB INGERSOLL, Cleveland-based public defender, life-long comic fan and collector, and legal analyst is ever looking for ways to make "The Law Is a Ass" more popular, more controversial, and, thus, more successful than ever. I've found one. Starting next week, the name of this column officially changes to "The Law Is an Satanic Verse."

Bob Ingersoll

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