The riveting story of Bridgeport attorney Sam Friedman and Thurgood Marshall defending a black chauffeur accused of rape by his white employer in her Greenwich mansion then gagging her and pushing her off a bridge comes to life next month in a screenplay co-written by Bridgeport-based attorney Michael Koskoff and his son Jacob. Decades before appointment as the first black on the Supreme Court, Marshall was an attorney for the NAACP. The movie tells the story of the legal bond between Marshall and a young Jewish lawyer defending a black man before an all-white jury in Bridgeport in 1940. The defendant Joseph Spell was found not guilty.
Koskoff’s legal work in Bridgeport runs deep including his historic federal litigation on behalf of black police officers.
The Jewish Ledger conducted a Q&A with Koskoff last year. Check it out.
Jewish Ledger (JL): How did you come across the story?
Michael Koskoff (MK): The story came from a friend of mine, Jack Zeldes, a lawyer who founded the law firm of Zeldes, Needle & Cooper in Bridgeport and who passed away last year. He was an outstanding lawyer and something of a legal historian. He and I were talking one day and he said, “There’’ a great story that should be told and I think it would make a great screenplay but I’m not a screenwriter.” He knew that I had two children who are screenwriters and he thought maybe one of them would be interested. I brought it to my daughter, Sarah, and my son, Jacob, and at the time, neither one of them was able to do it–they both had other projects–and they didn’t really feel that they had the background for it. So I said, “I’ll try it myself.”
I had dabbled in screenwriting before, but nothing ever came to be produced.
JL: What attracted you to the story?
MK: My own experience: the first 10 or 15 years of my practice, I concentrated a lot on criminal defense. I was involved in a number of very significant, high-profile political trials involving race and I was very much involved in civil rights litigation. So I had a sense of the dynamics that take place in a political trial. It’s different from other kinds of trials and the trial of Joseph Spell had vast political overtones.
This is what hooked me on the story. A woman was found wandering near a reservoir late at night and told a lurid story about having been raped by her chauffeur. The newspapers picked it up and went wild with it. One called it “the sex trial of the century.” It was sort of like the O.J. Simpson case, in some ways. The NAACP decided they needed someone to defend Joseph Spell. They went to Bridgeport and they tried to go to the prominent criminal defense attorneys of the day and no one would go near it. They got to Sam Friedman because the head of the NAACP had gone to high school with him, and essentially begged Sam to take the case.
This was a tremendously courageous thing for Sam to do: he was a young lawyer trying to make a practice for himself–he started practicing in 1936–and this was not a popular thing for a lawyer to do in those days. At first blush, it seemed pretty much like a hopeless case, a case that couldn’t be defended, so there was absolutely no reason for him to take this case. But he did, because I think he felt the man deserved a defense. Sam was born in Minsk and came to the United States as an infant. He didn’t have an accent but he was still definitely concerned, as an adult, about his ability to assimilate into the greater community. So this was another pressure on him.
Another thing that hooked me is the period of time we’re talking about. This alleged crime took place in December 1940 and the trial was in January 1941. The war is raging in Europe–the U.S. hadn’t entered it yet–Britain is being bombed, Jews are being picked up off the street in eastern Europe, where Sam was from. We have serious times now but, as far as the Jewish population was concerned, we were on the verge of Armageddon. This is in the background of the story and of the screenplay. At the same time, in the African American community, there were vast changes taking place: because we’re gearing up for the war in Europe, there are job openings in the North, and African Americans are coming north to get those jobs. This media frenzy caused African American workers–particularly, domestic workers–to be fired all over the country and that’s why the NAACP felt it was so important that Joseph Spell get a defense.
Full Q&A here.
Read more on the trial here.