J. Craig Williams on New Podcast ‘In Dispute: 10 Trials That Changed History’ and Its Literary Origin

Even though the 2024 summer movie season kicked off with a disappointing debut, podcast listening is expected to be at an all time high. Avid listeners will be excited to know that Attorney and Author J. Craig Williams is debuting In Dispute, a podcast produced by Legal Talk Network, alongside his highly anticipated book, How Would You Decide?

The podcast, which debuts today and will continue to release in monthly increments, is a historical retelling of the most fascinating trials of all time, featuring narration from a team of voice actors and legal insights from Williams. The pilot episode is all about the Salem Witch Trials. Future episodes dive into the trials of OJ Simpson, the Chicago Black Sox, and McMartin Preschool, among others.

In Dispute podcast artwork

J. Craig Williams reflected on this project, explained what people can expect, and revisited the history of audio storytelling amid the release.

Note: This interview has been edited for length.

1. What criteria went into selecting the ten trials featured in your podcast and book?

My first Kaplan Publishing book, How to Get Sued, was very successful. Kaplan liked my somewhat sarcastic style of writing, and asked me to write this second book, at the time code named in-house as Bad Decisions? 10 Famous Trials That Changed History. I joined forces with Susan Barry, who was a publisher there at the time, to pick the ten trials that we thought would most interest legal readers together.

I then asked Erwin Chemerinsky, now Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law to write the Foreword. Kaplan and I went through several rounds of chapter editing, but with new leadership hired right before my initial publishing date, Kaplan decided to abandon their trade book division and focus efforts instead on their law and medical prep classes. They were nice enough to let me keep the advance and release their rights to my book. But I was so disappointed that I put the book aside and almost forgot about it.

Years later, Crimson Cloak Publishing, volunteered to publish my next book as well – not knowing that I had one at the ready, CCP was the house that published my and my wife’s second book, The Sled (an illustrated Christmas story where my grandchildren are the characters). I dusted off Bad Decisions? and sent it to them. They asked to publish it.

Now it’s gone through another five rounds of editing and it is much better for it, including a change to the in-house name. My wife suggested the more positive top name, How Would You Decide? and viola’.

2. What’s one story that surprised you or caught you off-guard when researching these trials?

The Salem Witch Trials.  I was surprised to remember that the witches were all hung, not burned as they were in Europe during the Inquisition and in movies. I was even more surprised to learn that a wizard (an allegedly ‘fallen’ Baptist – not Puritan – minister) was hanged as well. Those fanciful Halloween myths took over my reality for a moment when I started my research and I pictured witches burned at the stake. I was also surprised to learn that the witch frenzy resulted in the first and only death in the United States from stoning – pressing an accused wizard beneath a pile of stone.

In Dispute: 10 Famous Trials That Changed History

Salem Witch Trials: How The Hysteria Went Terribly Awry

3. If someone had time to listen to only one episode or read one chapter, which one would you recommend?

Either the McMartin Preschool Trial in Los Angeles or the Lindy “the-dingo-ate-my-baby” Chamberlin trial in Australia. Both trials have direct parallels to the horrible Salem Witch Trials, but the Chamberlin trial also gives us a peek into Australia’s system, where we find that bureaucratic red tape hasn’t changed much in two hundred years, even in another country.

Both modern-day trials clearly show the mistreatment of our citizens that exists in the court system that we believe is better than it shows up to be in either of these cases. Unfortunately, the abuses of the defendants in these trials are both eye-opening and shocking.

4. When writing your chapters, what sort of details did you tend to emphasize to build the story arcs?

Trial procedure can be as boring as watching corn grow in summertime Iowa. Vibrant trial testimony and colorful news commentary, however, provide the driving force to liven up those boring courtroom procedures into legal drama worthy of a TV show. Dramatic testimony and pivotal rulings drove the story arc forward and allowed me to gently weave in my trial lawyer’s observations. The quoted news reports were so well-written that I was often awestruck reading them and had to include them in the book and podcast miniseries, Algonquin Table and Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Mencken’s primary among them.

Frequently, small “lawyer’s tricks” have a big effect on the outcome and explain why the jury rendered its guilty or not guilty verdicts. Think back to “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” from the O.J. trial – a big trick. But if you’re not a lawyer, then the not-so-obvious lawyer’s tricks can easily slip by unnoticed. The book and podcast pull back that curtain and put the reader and listener squarely in the center of the courtroom to reveal the not-so-obvious reasons the case turned out the way it did.

I chose the key parts from each of these trials to show how those boring procedures, technical evidentiary objections like hearsay and those Constitutional claims based on our Bill of Rights, and the differences in the rulings from the various judges all came together to affect the outcome of the trial.

Hear the trailer:

5. So many of the featured trials included laws or commonly accepted beliefs that are vastly outdated compared to today’s standards. What do you believe are the issues, laws, or legal practices most likely to change that tomorrow’s lawyers may need to prepare for?

Society’s pendulum of acceptable and unacceptable behavior swings wildly from generation to generation and ever more wildly across the centuries as we see when we compare the meetinghouse 1600s Salem witch trials to the worldwide, wall-to-wall broadcast of the 1980s O.J. Simpson trial.

But now society’s pendulum no longer swings in the twenty-first century.  It is split in half and its side-to-side motion is at a halt midswing – one side of our country is “woke” and the other side is “anti-woke.” Our laws are changing accordingly and the laws we select to enforce and ignore are becoming both much stricter and much looser, depending sometimes on your wealth and ability to afford high-end lawyers. Even then, no one eyewitness sees the same event alike. We each have perspectives that no longer overlap.

It is also becoming much harder to rely on precedent.  Overturning Roe v. Wade was perhaps the beginning of our slide into disregarding precedent to the point that lawyers can’t truly advise their clients about the state of the law. What used to be a “Yes you can” is now a “No you can’t” in too many cases to reliably predict how our Supreme Court will decide future cases and whether they will throw out established precedent.

And that infection of readily disregarding precedent has now spread to most of the next-level-down Circuit Courts of Appeal, too. It’s frighteningly starting to pop up with more regularity in our most basic of all courts, the federal district and state superior courts. Rogue judges are no longer rogue; their behavior is now “normalized” and commonplace and what ethics? Think upside-down flags.

J. Craig Williams holding a 35 year old hooded bald eagle named SOTUS, which stands for Symbol Of The United States.

For everyday lawyers, it is becoming ever harder to predict the path of the law, and recent political developments cast aside the rule-of-law like last week’s leftovers.

But also as one of my old law professors observed, the law itself is a seamless web. When you push one side of it, another side moves too but sometimes in unintended ways.

6. What was one trial that didn’t make the initial cut but that could be explored in a sequel or on a second season of the podcast? What about it makes it compelling to you?

There’s a partial list in the book Introduction of other famous trials I also wanted to cover:  Lizzie Borden, Sam Sheppard, the Menendez brothers, Charles Manson, and Patty Hearst, to name a few), treason (Aaron Burr), or other betrayal (the Rosenbergs). Religion (the trials of Joan of Arc and Sir Thomas Moore), discrimination (the Amistad and Brown v. Board of Education trials), and perhaps pivotal moments in history such as war crimes trials (the Nuremberg and Mai Lai trials) come to mind as well. And I’m happy to get suggestions.

7. If you could get lunch with anyone involved in the featured trials, dead or alive, who would you pick and why?

John Adams.  I want to know how he overcame the crushing financial losses to his law firm after he took on the unpopular defense of the eight British soldiers who shot the five colonists in what became known as the Boston Massacre. He lost more than half of his law firm clients after he defended the “redcoats” – and for six out of the eight soldiers, won acquittals. His actions were directly contrary to pre-Revolutionary war patriotic sentiment driven by his cousin, Samuel Adams – another famous Bostonian.

I also want to know what actions Adams took that landed him both the Vice Presidency and Presidency after that crippling financial blow. The Hollywood version of his life is (not surprisingly) starkly different from reality. I have no desire to go into politics, but I find his life particularly interesting because he went from top to bottom and to the top again as a lawyer; such a recovery is an admirable feat in itself no matter what profession.

8. Your other podcast, Lawyer 2 Lawyer, is approaching its 20-year anniversary. What has changed the most about the podcasting and/or “audio storytelling” medium over the years?

For the podcast, the biggest change is the number of hosts and guests.  We started out in 2005 with two hosts and two guests that left very little time in our 30-minute show for the guests to answer questions and even less time for both of us as hosts to ask questions. When my co-host Bob Ambrogi retired, I was thrilled to continue and have the opportunity of a full 30 minutes to ask questions and keep the interview on one track instead of four.

Now with one host and usually only one guest, our discussions tend to focus on substantive issues that dive deeper than what you’ve read in the papers or online. Our guests have the time to talk and develop their responses, and I occasionally ask a question that I think our listeners would ask, the ones not in the newspapers.

It’s been a fun transition and the response from our guests, our listeners, and our sponsors has been great; and I love the new format. Also of note, our twenty-year long tenure gives L2L Producer Kate Kenney Nutting – who started with me in 2005 – the “street cred” to draw top-quality guests. As just one example, our first June 2024 episode on Trump’s possible 34-felony sentencing featured an attorney-turned-law-professor who previously served as a prosecutor in Alvin Bragg’s position in the very same New York Attorney General business corruption division that prosecuted Trump, and he took time out late at night on his vacation in Spain to record the show.


The History of Audio Storytelling

I’m not sure that audio storytelling has changed all that much over the years, although it lulled during the heyday of television and to some degree still suffers from that difference.  There are only so many variations you can have with “radio” and “podcasting” because that medium is in our ears alone, not our eyes and ears like it is with television or streaming video.

For my experience, I started out more than 50 years ago in ninth grade and earned a Third Class FCC broadcasting license to sit in front of a microphone “On the Air.”  In the 1970s when I started in radio, I was a disc jockey who introduced rock-and-roll songs, reported the news and weather along with our high school daily announcements, like what was for lunch in the cafeteria. When I got a job as a disc jockey at a commercial radio station while I was in college, I was still introducing songs, but I had advanced to reading the hog futures for local farmers instead of cafeteria menus for high schoolers.

Podcasting has changed all of that and it is drastically different from my first two radio jobs, but it remains niche-driven. You can still dial in and hear the hog futures and what’s for lunch at your local high school cafeteria.

In my dad’s time in the 1920s and 1930s, some 100 years ago, there was no television, streaming radio, and certainly not a smartphone in your hand. Radio was only AM radio waves (Amplitude Modulation, which describes a sine wave based on signal strength on a vertical axis), not even FM (Frequency Modulation, which describes a sine wave based on its speed compression on a horizontal axis).

In fact, I still have and listen to my grandmother’s brown-wood, stand-up piece of furniture radio that features a bright, lime-green one-inch tube on the front – it lights up brighter and becomes tighter when the dial finds the strongest signal from that station. It still works and I love the crackly static that comes with AM. 

At least I can claim I was also a cool FM disc jockey and not just an AM hack, the class distinctions of the day. Music saved radio and audio storytelling became pase’ once television came into being mid-century and took over the minds and hearts of viewers and even developed its own jargon – Prime Time TV.

Goodbye Radio and Hello Podcasting

Radio matured mid-century and had to fight for listeners against that new-fangled medium of black-and-white TV where you could actually see and hear the actors perform the dramas. Once color TV became mainstream, radio lost its throne in the house to the glowing brown furniture box and was relegated to the figurative back seat of the car.

To save itself, radio sponsorship paid for music, news, and talk shows. Radio advertising rates fell and TV rates skyrocketed. Radio mostly stayed in those three lanes until podcasting came along. Almost at once, though, podcasting freed up once again the creative storytelling of the early years of radio when the actors’ voices alone had to convey the drama of the story solely to the listener’s ears – “Look Ma, no hands!”

Listen to ‘In Dispute’ wherever you get your podcasts.

Revisit the most impactful trials of the past millennium and follow ‘In Dispute’ on Apple Podcasts and Spotify so you never miss an episode.

Pre-order the book here.

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