The Goldmark Case: An American Libel Trial
In 1962 John Goldmark, cattle rancher, Harvard Law School graduate, and distinguished three-term state legislator for a lightly populated area in north central Washington, was overwhelmingly defeated in his attempt for reelection. He and his wife, Sally, had been accused of being communists by a small group of right-wing extremists. The Goldmarks sued their accusers for libel and when their case came to trial in the winter of 1963-64 it has become a cause celebre throughout the country.
Witnesses of national reputation crossed the country to testify, the eastern press covered the case, and issues of civil liberties, the communist challenge to the values of American society, and the radical right movement were fought out before a rural jury. The charge that the American Civil Liberties Union was a communist front, among other issues, was litigated for the first time. Today, two decades later, the Goldmark trial tells us much about democracy, civil liberties, and trial by jury.
William Dwyer was the Goldmarks chief counsel. His gripping story of their nightmare and ultimate vindication is a classic of American trial court history. He provides a vivid picture of the political climate and its effect on everyone involved--plaintiffs, defendants, and counsel for both sides. In addition he gives us a fascinating description of the courtroom drama itself, revealed in the extensively quoted testimony, and a fascinating account of the way trial lawyers plan the strategy of a case: from jury selection, the questioning and cross-examination of witnesses, to final arguments.
The lessons of the Goldmark case lead to the core of our contemporary social fabric. They restore our faith in the American jury system. Just as that system has begun to come under concentrated attack the evidence of this case shows us that a jury is able to comprehend and pass judgment on the most complex cases. Jurors bring to the courtroom an ever-renewed freshness and a wealth of experience that no one person, not even the greatest judge, can match.
The second lesson we know but have to be continually retaught. We have allowed wave after wave of anti-communist hysteria to injure innocent Americans and to debase our political life. John Goldmark's accusers went beyond the limits of political invective. And the decision of the nine men and three women in an old county courthouse in Okanogan, Washington, reminds us today that the strength of our democratic values allows us to thrive amid differing ideologies. An unreasoning fear of communism only serves to betray our own ideals.
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