Manny Fernandez was defending an insurance company in Miami-Dade court when a witness, speaking in a halting, Ecuadorian accent, got emotional when he recalled seeing his roommate mauled in a construction accident. "He was amazing," Fernandez says. "I was really blown away."
The testimony was especially impressive because the real witness -- the man who'd actually seen the accident -- had moved out of the state and couldn't come to the hearing. The man on the stand was a professional actor paid to read a deposition in his best Shakespearean tenor.
The performance came courtesy of Actors at Law, a Lincoln Road firm that hooks up unemployed thespians with attorneys in need of dramatic testimony. Business has been slow so far -- perhaps because lawyers worry judges could get pissed at the legal drama -- but the owners say they've hit a new legal niche market.
"The last thing you want is a jury falling asleep during key testimony," says Ellen Jacoby, a casting director who cofounded the group with attorney Marc Brumer.
That's exactly what Jacoby says happened to her when she filed a lawsuit after hurting her neck in a car wreck. When a police officer couldn't attend the hearing, Jacoby suggested Brumer hire one of her actors to read his deposition.
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"I used to just have my secretary come in to read," says Brumer, who's also a Screen Actor's Guild member. "But she was so loud and monotone you could just see the jury tune out."
Combine the ploy's success with a recession-decimated local acting industry, and Jacoby and Brumer saw a chance to cash in. It hasn't happened yet -- the pair have hired actors out only about a dozen times --but the owners say clients have noticed a difference when a professional reads testimony. "They just make it so much more interesting for jurors," Jacoby says.
Fernandez, for one, sees a future in county court for would-be Law and Order stars.
"If I could afford George Clooney, I'd never lose," he says.