The most prominent defense attorney in the Twilight Zone trial, suave James Neal, 57, the former Watergate prosecutor, was gentlemanly when he rose to address the court. “There is something terribly wrong here,” he told the judge. His fellow counsel, tall, athletic-looking Harland W. Braun, 44, was more blunt. Rising, he pointed a finger at the tiny woman to his left. “We will argue to the jury that the prosecutor is a liar,” he said, requesting an immediate mistrial.
Such bare-knuckled charges are unusual in any courtroom, but the object of their scorn, L.A. deputy district attorney Lea Purwin D’Agostino, 49, trim in a stylish purple business suit and wearing her trademark “lucky piece,” a golden bee, on her shoulder, smiled imperturbably. The 5’1″, 90-lb. prosecutor, in her third week of single-handed courtroom combat against seven top trial attorneys—all of them male—had stung back more than once. Last week, she did it again. The motion for a mistrial was denied, and D’Agostino pressed on in her attempt to put director John (Trading Places) Landis and four other defendants behind bars for involuntary manslaughter.
The dramatic courtroom confrontations between the feisty D’Agostino—known in L.A. legal circles as “the Dragon Lady” because of her uncompromising tactics—and the seven defense attorneys arrayed against her has caused nearly as much talk as the actual 1982 tragedy in which actor Vic Morrow and two young children were killed. The specific issue of the current trial, which is expected to last four months and involve the testimony of 100 or more witnesses, is whether or not Landis, production manager Dan Allingham, pilot Dorcey Wingo, special effects coordinator Paul Stewart and associate producer George Folsey Jr. were criminally negligent during the filming of a Vietnam War scene for an episode of Twilight Zone. In that scene, later splashed across newspapers and on TV, a helicopter surrounded by explosions suddenly plunged to the ground, taking the lives of Morrow and two extras, Renee Chen, 6, and Myca Dinh Le, 7. “These were not deaths from which someone could get away and wipe off the blood-looking catsup and say, ‘I’m alive,’ ” D’Agostino told the jury on opening day. “These were very real deaths.”
In a sense, it is Hollywood itself that is on trial. Since the Twilight Zone incident, allegations have arisen that some filmmakers for years have been callously sacrificing the safety of actors for dangerous special effects. If there is a conviction, stricter safety guidelines could emerge. As a result, Hollywood is watching the courtroom duel between prosecutor D’Agostino and the defense with keen attention.
It has been quite a show. Eugene Trope, the attorney for Wingo, charges that D’Agostino encourages bitterness by ignoring normal courtroom courtesies and forcing the defense to laboriously lay a foundation for everything it wants to present. The outspoken Braun, who represents Folsey, says, “She’s turning [the trial] into an expression of her own ego.” Arnold Klein, attorney for Stewart, says the defense not only wants to get its clients exonerated but also wants “to see D’Agostino eat it.” Adds Klein, “She’s developed tunnel vision. This case is consuming her entire life, and I think she’s a win-at-any-costs prosecutor.”
D’Agostino is unmoved by such complaints. “If they want to personally attack me, if that’s the only way that they can divert attention from the facts of the case,” she says, “then they’ll do it. I find it really amusing and flattering that seven top, highly paid attorneys have to stoop to these tactics to get rid of 90-lb. Lea D’Agostino. You cannot dispute the fact that three people are dead, needlessly, for a motion picture. And there is no motion picture in the world worth one human life, let alone three.”
Speaking in a Tennesee drawl and flicking ashes from an 8-inch Honduran cigar, Neal says, “If the prosecutor kept her mouth shut, I would have kept my mouth shut. I’ve always believed that lawyers can fight each other in court and be friends. I perceive an unrelieved animosity on the part of Mrs. D’Agostino.”
In the patrician Neal, whom she calls “the master puppeteer,” D’Agostino faces perhaps the toughest adversary of her nine-year career as a deputy district attorney. Besides his role as chief Watergate prosecutor, Neal also successfully prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa for Attorney General Robert Kennedy. As a defense attorney, he gained acquittals for the Ford Motor Company in the case of the Pinto gas-tank fires, and for Lousiana Governor Edwin Edwards in his recent racketeering trial.
By contrast, D’Agostino is a relative newcomer to the law. Born in Tel Aviv and raised in England and Chicago, she graduated from high school at 16 and dropped out of Northwestern University during her freshman year. She held various office jobs after moving to L.A. in 1960, including one as executive secretary for legendary film producer David O. Selznick. Attending the University of West Los Angeles Law School at night (California allows law school study without a college degree), she graduated in 1976.
D’Agostino dated actor Peter Sellers before his 1964 marriage to Britt Eklund (“He was a wonderful human being…and let’s leave it at that”), and in 1974 married L.A. food concessionaire Joseph D’Agostino. The couple, who have no children, live in a Westwood condo, where a look in her closets reveals a raft of Adolfos and Louis Ferauds. An admitted clothes-horse, D’Agostino says her passion for apparel pales in comparison with her zeal as a prosecutor. “I know it sounds soapbox, but knowing that I’ve put rapists, murderers, kidnappers and robbers behind bars, that I’ve made the streets a bit safer, I sleep like a baby. I feel wonderful.”
Victims of crimes are said to love her for the sympathy and dedication she brings to their causes; defendants and their attorneys generally loathe her for her single-minded zeal. Her present foes are no exception, but D’Agostino claims that what she calls “the barbershop septet” can only hurt her in one way. “That’s when they all jump up en masse to make an objection,” she says. “It’s so loud it just about ruptures my eardrums.” The objections may get even louder, but that doesn’t faze D’Agostino. “They know everything they are saying about me is simply not true,” she says. “I would stake my integrity against anyone’s, and [put it] a great deal higher than theirs.”