In their seminal 1981 work on courtroom performance, Reconstructing Reality in the Courtroom, Lance Bennett and Martha Feldman propose a theory purporting to show “how ordinary means of telling and interpreting stories are used in trials to assess the credibility of competing claims.” Key among their insights is that courtroom dynamics are a function of more than lawyers attempting to convince lay jurors in the presence of a judge. What I hope to show over the next few installments in this series is that—without disagreeing with Bennett and Feldman (and even some of their critics)—the matter is rather more complicated than they posit. Ultimately, I want to focus on two things: first, the shifting roles that the various actors play throughout the course of any trial; and second, that most trials do not present jurors with a binary choice between diametrically opposing versions of “what really happened.”

Bennett and Feldman’s baseline insight is that legal judgments are based on the plausibility (not necessarily the truth) of the stories that are told at trial and, more important, that plausibility is a function of “the structural ambiguities linking the key elements of the narrative together.” Thus conceived, jurors make their decisions as auditors of a specific sort: “stories become the layperson’s theory for mapping a set of particulars onto a set of legal rules and deciding how convincing the fit is.” And this mapping is made easier within the story framework because a story is a natural human way to organize large amounts of information, even when the information is received in disjointed packets: at trial, “Once the basic plot outline of a story begins to emerge it is possible to integrate information that is presented in the form of subplots, time disjunctures, or multiple perspectives on the same scene.”