When the P-9ers went on strike in Austin against Hormel, it was national news. When the local Judge signed a restraining order forbidding the strikers and their sympathizers from stopping scabs from crossing the picket line, 224 people got arrested and charged with obstructing justice. The local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild was enlisted to provide a defense. I figured out a way we could represent all 224 of them. First I set up ten teams of two lawyers each and assigned each team 20 or so clients. Then I went to the first court hearing and told the Judge we were demanding 224 separate jury trials (way too many for the system to handle), but that if the prosecutor was willing to do a “representative trial” with just two of those charged, one represented by me, and one pro se, then the other 222 were agreed to abide by whatever verdict that one jury decided in the one trial. The Judge was on board fast and convinced the prosecutor this was the way to go.
The reason for two in the trial, and one pro se (pro se means on your own without a lawyer), was to be able to have two opening arguments, two closing arguments, etc. But what I didn’t say was that the one pro se Defendant was hand-picked by P-9ers because he was a local minister and known for his ability to be persuasive. His name was Denny Tompkins and he gave the best opening statement I’ve ever heard – even to this day. Good thing, because during the jury selection process, I had messed up the signals from the spectators’ galley as to which prospective jurors were known as union sympathizers, and which had ties to The Hormel Company. I let the daughter of a Company Vice-President get on, and she became the Jury Forelady!
But Denny saved me. After he sat down all I had to do was put the evidence in with some semblance to the allegorical story he had told. Telling an allegory is not really allowed by the Rules of Court, but because Denny was pro se the prosecutor didn’t want to object and make it seem to the jury like he was unwilling to allow Rev. Tompkins a say in his own defense. Here’s what the Reverend told a jury of his peers:
”Imagine you’re a bunch of kids who saw some shiny new bicycles in a store window and asked your parents to buy them for you. Your parents said they didn’t have enough money and told you to go get jobs.
You found jobs delivering newspapers for a penny a paper. Then one of you had this great idea, and asked the newspaper owner if you could get a penny and a half for any new customers you found. The owner said okay. You worked hard, found new customers; and your parents loaned you the money to buy the bikes. But when the kids in the next town saw your new bikes, they got jealous and told the newspaper owner they would deliver all the papers for a penny apiece.
When the owner said okay to them, you complained but were told “It’s not in writing. If you want your jobs you have to deliver all the papers, new customers and old customers, for a penny apiece.”
Then you went to your parents, but they said “Look, we loaned you the money and need to get paid back. Keep those jobs even if only a penny a paper.”
Then you went to the customers and said “This is Not Fair!” But the customers said, “It’s not our business – we just want our papers.”
On the way home, one of you was so mad, you threw a brick through a customer’s window, and ever since then you have all been known as the Black Sheep.”
Then he sat down. I thought “Wow! We’re going to win.” I had a witness ready to testify about the missing language in the contract. It took the jury only an hour of deliberations to come back with an acquittal, making me & Denny heroes to all 224, their families, friends and P-9ers all over.
Almost better yet, while the jury was deliberating, the head of The Local Union (P-9) came up to me and Carla, my law partner in the case, and said the National Office of the Union had ordered the P-9ers mural on the side of the local Union Hall sand-blasted off because the National Meatpackers were no longer in support of the strike, and . . . and the sand-blasting was underway! Well, we got the Judge to sign an injunction to stop the sand-blasting even while the jury was still out.
It was days like this, maintaining a “meter-isn’t-always-running” law office, that got me elected to the Legislature within 7 years and a month of getting mugged.
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