At the trial, one of the main prosecution witnesses, a survivor of the fire, Kate Alterman, a young Jewish girl gives her account of that fateful day when the fire broke out.
The girls working at the factory used to take frequent cigarette breaks and would walk out through the fire door. In order to stop all these frequent breaks, the owners had sealed the fire door shut.
One of Kate’s friends has just finished smoking a cigarette with her head outside the window, when Kate smells some smoke. She thinks that it is the residue smoke from the cigarette. But soon, she can see thick smoke seeping into the room and the women start screaming when they realise the factory is on fire.
The women start to run to the fire door, but the door is sealed shut. Kate can see the women trying to claw at the door, but the door refuses to open. The women are becoming hysterical, and several of them are crushed as all of them attempt to push towards the door. Kate can barely see now, as the smoke gets thicker and thicker, and she can feel the heat of the flames as they climb up the floors. She hides in a broom closet and closes the door, but it still does not cut out the screams she can hear in the air. She passes out and when she comes to, a fireman is pulling her out from the charred ruins of the factory.
After Kate’s evidence, the courtroom is silent, and everyone turns to look at Steuer as he stands to begin his cross-examination. He says very quietly to Kate ,”Say it again Kate….” Kate is slightly surprised but she again tells her story. At the end of it, Steuer again asks her to tell it again. Kate again tells her story, there are no changes, and she tells the exact same story.
What made Steuer a great lawyer is that not only was he gifted with a photographic memory, he also had a phonographic memory. He could remember everything he heard. When Kate told her story for a third time, she had told her story exactly the same way, word-for-word, except that Steuer now picked out that she had changed one word. She had used “might have” instead of “may have”. He points this out to her, that she had now used a different word, and she agrees. Steuer then sits down and ends his cross examination.
Steuer had realised, after hearing the testimony of Kate for the first time, that her story sounded too polished and perfect and that is why he adopted the unusual approach of asking Kate to repeat her story over and over again. She used the exact same words again and again, and Steur demonstrated to the jury that Kate, and probably other witnesses, had memorised their statements and may have even been told what to say by the prosecution. Steuer had managed to destroy Kate’s credibility without ever directly attacking it.
The jury acquitted the owners. However, the owners subsequently lost a civil suit in 1913.
[This is based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and I first heard the story in a video on the ‘Ten Commandments of Cross Examination’. ]
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