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Closing arguments Wednesday in the Desperate Housewives trial posed a direct challenge to the jury: Who do you believe?
Nicollette Sheridan is asking jurors to believe her emotional argument that Housewives producer Marc Cherry, ABC and Touchstone Television conspired to kill off her character after she complained about a September 2008 altercation with Cherry on the set. Sheridan lawyer Mark Baute asked the jury to award her at least $5.76 million for lost pay from season six of the show plus interest.
ABC, on the other hand, is asking the jury to take the word of several witnesses who repeatedly said the decision to kill off Sheridan was made in May 2008, months before the Cherry/Sheridan incident. The network argues Sheridan should get nothing.
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Sheridan attorney Baute made his closing statement first Wednesday, hammering home his theory that Disney, ABC, Cherry and at least nine other witnesses for the defense were part of a conspiracy to ignore what happened to the actress and protect the billion-dollar business of the hit television show.
“Everyone at Touchstone was in the loop helping orchestrate the record,” Baute told the jury. “They got together to create a record of justifiable firing.”
Defense attorney Adam Levin took a much less emotional approach. He systematically laid out the evidence that was presented and the credibility of his 10 witnesses.
“Marc Cherry told you they talked about killing off Edie as early as in season three,” said Levin, adding that it was only in season five that he was given permission to end the character’s story arc for “creative reasons” in order to “shock and surprise the audience and increase viewership and revenue (from higher ratings).
Throughout the trial, Baute has been developing the conspiracy theory. Disney and Touchstone, said Baute, are “not interested if a woman gets hit as long as it keeps a billion-dollar business going.”
Baute went through his witnesses’ testimony. He cited an expert who testified that it was highly unusual to kill off a character. He said ABC’s move of bringing in actor James Denton and then revealing that Denton’s character was about to be killed off proved nothing because Housewives is in its final season, and even on The Sopranos, characters were killed in the final episodes.
Baute spent a lot of time talking about what he called the lack of credibility from defense witnesses. He said Sabrina Wind, who is Cherry’s business partner, said, “I don’t recall” 46 times during her testimony, but when it came to the story Baute said she was coached to tell, she “sang like a bird.”
Baute insisted the only decision made by Touchstone and the ABC network in May 2008 was to jump the plot of the show ahead five years. Otherwise, everything else was subject to change — especially the fate of the Sheridan character. He said if they really planned to get rid of Sheridan, they would not have renewed her contract for the fifth season and would not have further vested her in profit-sharing from the entire series. “It’s a story,” said Baute. “It’s not the truth.”
The attorney added that when Sheridan was hit in the head, she reported the incident to the appropriate person — the line producer on the show — and her attorney brought it to the attention of ABC’s business affairs department. He said ABC policy is to initiate a quick and thorough investigation of any such incident, but it did not do so in this case. The HR investigation only began at the end of October, when ABC executive Mark Pedowtiz saw an article about the incident in the National Enquirer, and the HR person never interviewed Cherry or Sheridan.
Baute said repeatedly that a memo written by Cherry’s assistant at the time — which said the incident had been minor, Cherry had apologized and Sheridan had accepted his apology — was actually written by Cherry. He pointed out that the assistant wasn’t even present when Sheridan and Cherry met after the altercation, but the statement includes details of the interaction.
The point, Baute argued, is that the assistant and others on the Housewives payroll wanted to be able to tell Cherry, “Don’t worry, everyone agrees with your version of events, boss man,” Baute said.
Sheridan’s attorney said the February 2009 meeting where she was told her character would be killed off was prepared in advance and staged. Baute said the decision to kill the Edie Britt character in three different ways – choking, car accident and electrocution – was another way Cherry was punishing Sheridan through Edie.
As for why Sheridan went back to work right after she was hit in the head and why she appeared in a subsequent episode after being fired, Baute said, “If you’re a 45-year-old actress making that kind of money and he’s the boss, you don’t turn back. You go back to work.”
Baute argued that even though ABC presented testimony that Sheridan was late for work half the time and was unprofessional, there were no memos or HR reports or personnel charts to back up any of that testimony.
As for the overwhelming number of defense witnesses, Baute said as the judge had pointed out “one or two quality witness are more important than five or more spinning.”
Levin, in his closing, was much more calculated and stuck to the evidence. He said five of the 10 witnesses who testified that the decision to kill off Sheridan was made in May 2008 no longer work for ABC or Cherry and thus have no reason to lie. He said Cherry had thought long and hard about killing off Edie Britt, pointing out that he tried to do so in season three, but Pedowitz would not give him permission. He finally got that permission for season five.
Levin pointed to writers’ assistant notes shown during the trial that point out there was discussion about killing off Edie. Levin said, “No evidence [was presented that] the notes were fabricated or falsified.”
The ABC lawyer also said there was testimony that big decisions like killing off a character can be made in small The CW, “has no incentive to help out his competitor and to look you (the jury) in the eye and commit perjury.”
Levin said Sheridan is relying on two witnesses, writers Lori Baker and Jeff Greenstein, for much of her case. And he said Greenstein often contradicted Baker with his testimony.
He pointed out Baker had said when she left Housewives she considered her own lawsuit against Cherry and the show, which he said showed she was angry with him, even though she would not admit that on the stand.
Jury deliberations likely will begin in earnest Thursday. A verdict requires only 9 of the 12 jurors to agree.
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