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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Circumstantial Evidence and Artie Schopenhauer

From Washington Lawyer, November 2010

By Jacob A. Stein


Martin Armstrong had obtained two continuances from the court within which to file his opposition to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The court would not grant another.

He had attention deficit disorder about the case. He could not bring himself to read the file. He needed a place where there would be no distractions. The place he went to was that second-rate hotel in Boston where he stayed in his student days.

When he got there, the clerk told him to leave his briefcase in the lobby and come back in an hour and his room would be ready. He did not mind this. He could use the time to visit the used bookstores in the neighborhood—but not to buy any books. He did not want anything in his room other than the file.

In one of the bookstores there was a table where, for a dollar, one could pick up a stray volume from one of the multivolume sets. He saw Arthur Schopenhauer’s Counsels and Maxims in a nice leather binding. Despite his resolution to buy no books, he could not pass up the dollar bargain. He liked the old boy’s pessimism.

He felt guilty about breaking his resolution, but a page or two of Schopenhauer would not be a problem. He took a few turns around Bromfield Street, enjoying the pleasant fall weather, then returned to the hotel. His room was just what he wanted—a bed, a desk, a chair, a small closet. No radio. No television. No distractions.

Now, once and for all, he was going to read the pleadings and the papers, no skipping. He would concentrate on each page. He soon realized that there was not much to the defendant’s motion. It was filled with the usual generalists. Why had he been frightened by it?

After two hours of work, he stood up, stretched himself, and looked around the small room. The cleaning people did a poor job. The last occupant was a smoker and a drinker. The ashtray was filled with cigarette butts. Beneath the bed was an empty half-pint whiskey bottle. He put both in the trash basket. He had been clean of smoking and drinking for three years and had planned to stay that way. If he were to spend a week in this room, he might fall off the wagon.

He felt exhilarated after writing the first draft. It was a good paper, even if he said so himself. He decided to take a walk, eat a sandwich, and return to the room. He said to himself that he had now earned the right to read a few of Schopenhauer’s maxims, including the advice that “[t]o speak angrily to a person, to show your hatred by what you say or by the way you look is an unnecessary proceeding—dangerous, foolish, ridiculous, and vulgar.” Well, that is good advice.

There was a one-page paper note in the back of the book. It looked like a real suicide note, filled with despair and futility. How sad. It contained a Schopenhauer quotation:

Life may be represented as a constant deceiver in things great and small. If it makes promises, it never keeps them, … Life gives only to take away. The charm of distance shows us a paradise, which vanishes like an optical delusion if we allow ourselves to approach it.

Well, somebody in that state of mind should not have been reading Schopenhauer.

The Boston fall weather outside was pleasant. Martin tried to open the window facing the street. It would not open. It had not been opened for some time. There were chipped coats of old paint around the window. He thought of those lead poisoning cases he had lost.

Martin placed himself where he could put all his strength behind the effort. The window did not open, but something else happened. He felt a sharp chest pain. Why did he get all worked up about opening that window? His cardiologist had warned him against doing anything that involved real physical effort.

He breathed deeply, but the pain did not go away. He looked through the leather pouch where he kept his shaving supplies to see if he had his prescription bottle of nitroglycerin pills. The bottle was there, but no pills. He did find his over-the-counter sleeping pills. In the past, when he had sharp pains, he took a nitroglycerin pill together with the sleeping pill. If he got a good night’s sleep, the pain went away. He took two of the “blueys,” the blue pills that guaranteed to give a good night’s sleep (and if you don’t believe it, just read the label).

The following morning, the cleaning woman knocked on his door. No answer. She tried the door. It was locked. She reported this to the desk clerk who, with the help of others, pried open the lock. Martin was in bed, dead. The police were called. One of the policeman found the suicide note. He then called the doctor whose name was on the empty nitroglycerin bottle.

The policeman identified himself and asked if the doctor had Martin as a patient. The doctor confirmed it.

“Did you prescribe nitro pills for him?” The doctor said he did.

The policeman said, “What if he took a lot of pills and smoked a lot and drank a bottle of whiskey—would that have any effect?” The doctor said that would be a real problem.

“Well, it looks like Martin Armstrong has died, and he left a suicide note.” The policeman read it to the doctor.

The doctor said, “Something must have gone wrong for Martin to end up like this. Something must have really gone wrong for him to be in that second-rate hotel you have described. Why wasn’t he staying at the Ritz, his favorite hotel in Boston? Something must really have gone wrong.”

Mr. Stein is at [email protected]. Stein’s new book, Eulogy of Lawyers, can be obtained from The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. by calling 800-422-6686, e-mailing [email protected], or visiting www.lawbookexchange.com.