Melvin Belli

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Melvin Belli

Melvin Mouron Belli (b. July 29, 1907, Sonora, California - d. July 9, 1996, San Francisco) was a prominent United States lawyer known as "The King of Torts"—and by detractors as "Melvin Bellicose". He had many celebrity clients such as Zsa Zsa Gabor; Errol Flynn; Sirhan Sirhan; Jim and Tammy Faye; Martha Mitchell; and Hermann Göring's widow Emma. Belli graduated from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 1933. He established his name representing an injured cable car gripman in the 1930s.

He agreed to represent Jack Ruby for free after Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Some observers thought that the case could have been disposed of as a "murder without malice" charge (roughly equivalent to manslaughter) with a maximum sentence of five years. Instead, Belli attempted to prove that Ruby was legally insane and had a history of mental illness in his family. On March 14, 1964, Ruby was convicted of "murder with malice" and later received a death sentence.

Besides his famous personal injury cases, which gave him his "King of Torts" nickname, Belli was also instrumental in setting up some of the foundations of modern consumer rights law, arguing several cases in the 1940s and 1950s that formed the basis for later lawsuits and other actions by such figures as Ralph Nader. Belli argued (in cases such as Escola v. Coca-Cola [1944], which arose from an incident in which a waitress from Madera, California was severely injured by an exploding Coca-Cola bottle) that all products have an implied warranty, that it is to be foreseen that products will be used by a long chain of people, not just the direct recipient of the manufactured product, and that negligence by a defendant need not be proved if the defendant's product is defective. Belli also was one of the first major attorneys to prominently use demonstrative evidence and exhibits (such as graphics, charts, photographs, and films) in the courtroom.

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Belli as Gorgan

Belli appeared in a 1968 episode of Star Trek called "And the Children Shall Lead". He played Gorgan, an evil being who corrupted a group of children.

Belli received a letter from the Zodiac Killer in 1969. In 1970, he appeared in the Rolling Stones movie Gimme Shelter. Belli enjoyed his frequent television and movie appearances; he told an interviewer for Playboy in 1965 that he "might have been an actor" if he had not become an attorney.

Belli was the author of several books, including the six-volume Modern Trials (written between 1954 and 1960), which is a standard text in many law school classes.

Belli was married five times. His fourth marriage, to the former Lia Triff, ended with an acromonious and bitter divorce proceeding in 1988 in which Belli was fined $1000 for calling his wife "El Trampo," accused his wife of throwing their pet dog off the Golden Gate Bridge, and was ultimately compelled to pay an estimated $15 million.

His firm filed for bankruptcy protection in December 1995, not long before Belli's death. Belli said in interviews that the firm had no choice after Dow Corning, which the Belli firm had sued on behalf of a number of women who had gotten breast implants manufactured by the corporation and its subsidiaries, declared bankruptcy itself. Belli was declared by a bankruptcy judge to be "unfit" to run his firm in July 1996.

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