Nine years ago, Attorney Michael Koskoff, a senior partner at Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport and New Haven, and a lawyer who spends most of his time litigating personal injury cases that result in million dollar plus verdicts, turned to writing a screen play. Not all the time, of course.
Eventually he called upon his son, Jacob, who lives in Los Angeles and writes screenplays, to join the project and together they wrote and finished “Marshall.” Now, the national premiere of the film is set for this Friday, Oct. 13, in theaters across Connecticut and the nation. Here is the trailer.
In the career trajectory of high-powered lawyers, writing a screenplay might seem unusual. But the story was unusual. It was told to Koskoff by his good friend, Attorney Jack Zeldes, who died in 2013. “He told me about an historic case that took place in 1941 in Bridgeport. One of the lead lawyers was Thurgood Marshall. .
“Somebody should write a screen play,” Koskoff quoted Zeldes as saying on a Legal Eagle WNHH radio program last month. Koskoff became intrigued when he heard that the case centered on a wealthy white woman, her black chauffeur and accusations of rape. The lawyers who came to defend the chauffeur, Marshall, then 32 and black and Sam Friedman, then 33 and Jewish arrived in Bridgeport two days after the chauffeur was arrested.
At the time Marshall was a young attorney who worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. He would later become the first black justice to sit on the United States Supreme Court.
Marshall’s Early Career
But back in 1940 he was going state to state defending those in need. He was particularly needed in the case that came to be known as “The State of Connecticut vs. Joseph Spell” because Friedman, a civil attorney the NAACP hired to defend Spell, was eager but had no criminal court experience.
The crime centers on accusations that Spell, who served as a chauffeur and butler to Eleanor Strubing, a Greenwich socialite, had raped Strubing before throwing her in a reservoir. Strubing was found wandering bedraggled with her clothes torn off near the reservoir in New York on Dec. 11, 1940. It was the dead of winter. She told police a lurid account of being attacked multiple times by her chauffeur after which she was thrown into the water. The time was 5 a.m.
The two lawyers set out to defend Spell. Along the way they encountered the prejudice the Connecticut’s judicial system operated under at that time in history. For example, Marshall was not given all the rights attorneys are entitled to in a courtroom.
And it turned out that the judge in the case was a former law partner of the prosecutor, a hard-nosed lawyer named Lorin Willis. When he heard of their relationship Marshall laughed at loud, Koskoff said. Koskoff said his father, Ted Koskoff, a famous criminal defense attorney who tried the Black Panther case in New Haven, knew Willis quite well. “He was a hard-nosed person. If you were a Jew, a black, an Italian, he was against you. If you were not from a white mainstream background you were at a disadvantage in the courts,” Michael Koskoff said.
“The case was a cause celebre,” Koskoff said. “Domestic workers were getting fired or threatened with firing across the nation.This went on across the country,” he said. The case also became a tabloid sensation.
As the screenplay project progressed, Michael Koskoff and his son Jacob worked on the script in person, via phone, and via the internet.
“I knew the courtroom. I had tried hundreds of cases. I could bring the reality of courtroom to the film. He was in Los Angeles and I was in Connecticut. We had never worked together on something. It was a wonderful experience for both of us, Michael Koskoff said, happy that the father-son relationship was enhanced by the experience.
Marshall, he said, “did not know how racist our institutions were. The deck was set. There are lots twists and turns in the plot, lots of them. The movie shows six weeks of trial before an all-white jury.” We asked the obvious question but Koskoff remained mum on the jury’s verdict.
So has he caught the bug? Is there another movie in the works, the Eagle asked. Stay tuned, Koskoff said, smiling.
To listen to the broadcast, click above.