Attorneys using actors to prepare for witnesses

Sep 14 2011 - 4:05pm

NAPLES, Fla. -- For his role as a nationally renowned cardiologist and researcher, actor Tom Riska read his 100-page script for roughly three hours, stumbling on a few medical words. After boning up during a lunch break, Riska, 60, was confident with his script's medical jargon -- and his part as Dr. Rajendra H. Mehta went off without a hitch.

This wasn't a medical TV show or soap opera. Riska was "testifying" as an expert witness in court, where a surgeon and his physician assistant were on trial in a medical malpractice case.

Mehta couldn't make it to testify. He'd testified during the first trial in 2006, when jurors couldn't reach a verdict.

Riska is among the actors available at Actors-at-Law. The Miami firm was started in 2004 by attorney Marc Brumer, a trained actor, and Ellen Jacoby, a casting director for TV series and movies, including "Miami Vice," "CSI Miami" and "Ace Ventura."

Jacoby came up with the idea of using actors after her own trial. She'd been seriously injured in a car crash and spent four months wearing a brace.

Brumer, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, was her attorney, so she suggested using actors when a witness wasn't available.

Actors-at-Law receives about a dozen calls for actors annually and provided two actors for trials this year.

It's not unusual for depositions or trial transcripts to be read at a trial because of a doctor's or other expert's busy schedule. However, it's usually a lawyer, paralegal or assistant who delivers the absent witness' testimony in an often dull, monotonous voice.

"We're not trying to skew the system. We're not trying to embellish. But if you read a 300-page deposition, it's brutal -- it's hard to listen to," Brumer said. He doesn't disclose the reader is an actor, just an assistant.

Florida ethics rules allow reading of depositions and trial testimony if a witness isn't available, but don't address actors because the practice is rare. The American Bar Association has similar rules.

"There's no violation of ethics as long as you disclose that 'so and so' is not available and give an attorney advance notice to object," said Daniel P. Ryan, a Michigan judge and a law professor at Ave Maria School of Law.

"Obviously, both sides want to present their side in a persuasive manner," he said. "...As Shakespeare says, 'All the world's a stage' -- particularly when you go to trial."

News reports show the practice of using actors has been growing.

In 1993, Chicago actor Ian Harris started Law Actors, which has spread to Florida, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Ohio. In 2003, Law Actors provided "lawyers and witnesses" in a mock trial that helped lawyers prepare for a case that ended in a $32 million verdict.

Actors are trained to use voice, tone, inflection and facial expressions to make a reading more lively and interesting, while remaining true to a transcript.

Blue-eyed with blond-gray hair, the 6-foot-4 Riska looks and sounds nothing like the 53-year-old Indian-born Mehta. And his $100-an-hour bill was about $200 an hour less than Mehta's, although that wasn't a factor.

"Believe me, I'd much rather have the doctor there, but he wasn't available," said attorney Mark Weinstein.

Weinstein declined comment because of an expected appeal -- an attorney's remark about the actor and jurors not being able to judge Mehta's demeanor is part of his motion for a new trial.

When Riska took the stand, Weinstein told jurors Riska was an "assistant" and would read Mehta's past testimony. Jurors didn't appear to notice the implication when defense attorney Scott Sankey began his cross-examination by straying from the script. Riska stuck to the transcript.

Juror Corey Thomas noticed, but didn't think paying an actor was much different from paying an expert to testify.

"He was good," Thomas said. "... But it's just not as interesting because you can't ask questions."

Riska was straightforward. As he testified, he said he was able to portray Mehta better while making eye contact with the judge, jurors and attorneys.

"I'd say it was very close, if not longer, than a script for a feature-length film," Riska said. "...It is right up there with other challenging dialogues I have done."

(Contact Aisling Swift of the Naples Daily News in Florida at aswift@naplesnews.com.)

 

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