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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.

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