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T he public obsession with San Francisco’s dog-mauling case suggests that we need to spend more time thinking about what trials really do. Why did a crime that is hardly extraordinary — failing to control a dangerous dog — become a subject of such intense fascination? And what role did law play in stimulating a cultural spectacle? The answer is as simple as a salutation.

“Good evening, Clarice,” Hannibal Lecter purrs in the greeting that ingratiated itself into popular culture. Deputy DA James Hammer didn’t invoke Lecter’s salutation in the trial against Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, of course. But he might have. Indeed, Lecter’s welcome in “The Silence of the Lambs” embodies the case for the prosecution.

For all their attention to trial technique, attorneys are notoriously resistant to substantive analyses of how litigation actually works. Understandably, lawyers — having long marketed themselves as masters of the fact-finding process — may be reluctant to reveal that they are in a different racket altogether. But trials don’t produce truth. Rather, courtroom battles respond to a more basic cultural need. The trial’s ritualized recounting of troubling events allows us to make sense of our lives — in essence, to determine meaning and context in the way civilized man appears always to have done: We organize facts according to what we know from familiar narrative formats; we draw conclusions based on the lessons of popular legend; we assuage our anxieties with story.

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