Life and Art Collide as Real Lawyers Star in Cone Man's Witness for the Prosecution

Photo by Christine Weems
John Raley as Sir Wilfred Robarts and Natalia Cornelio as Romaine Heilger in Cone Man Running Productions' Witness for the Prosecution.
On stage is a laboratory assistant testifying about blood types played by a personal injury lawyer. A jealous housekeeper played by a criminal defense lawyer. And a judge played by, well, a former civil judge.

They’re in Cone Man Running Productions' latest show, Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, a classic trial drama performed with a twist – the entire cast is made up of members of Houston’s legal community.

But the fact that by day they are all involved in criminal justice – as current and former judges, a public defender, and more – probably shouldn’t be that surprising.

“Jury trials are a play and the trial lawyers that don’t understand that are boring and lose,” says civil trial lawyer John Raley with a laugh. “Juries want to be entertained. It’s a very serious play. It’s not light or frivolous. It’s important, but the best trial lawyers are alive and interesting in court and hold people’s attention and people watch them and listen to them and want to hear what they have to say.”

Raley, who will play Sir Wilfred Robarts in the production, says he probably wouldn’t be a trial lawyer today if not for high school theater, and specifically the acting teacher who gave him the role of Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind.

“She said, ‘I believe in you,’ and it was one of those life-changing moments.”

Why life-changing? Because the character of Henry Drummond was based on Clarence Darrow, who famously defended a Tennessee high school teacher accused of teaching evolution during the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial.

“I don’t know which came first, but I think the argument should be that I did high school theater – in addition to athletics and other things – and my role based on Clarence Darrow gave me a desire to seek justice in the courtroom and I have striven to do so,” says Raley.

Raley has devoted much of the last 39 years to the practice of law, and says that it wasn’t until his children grew up and moved away that he received what he playfully calls “an empty nester’s dispensation” to act again from his wife – and law partner – Kelly Raley. Recently, he played the role of Beverly Weston in Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.’s production of August: Osage County.

“The cast was so solid, people I’ve been watching for years,” says Raley. “I remember in our first read-through I said, ‘It is such an honor for me to be dead backstage while you’re performing.’”

Though he didn’t intend to pursue back-to-back plays, Raley says he couldn’t refuse director (and Cone Man founding board member) Christine Weems – “that would be Judge Weems to the rest of the world,” says Raley – when she approached him about performing Agatha Christie for the first time.

“I’ve always known [Christie] was brilliant, but I probably didn’t have as full an appreciation as I should have as to the depth of her brilliance until I read her play and acted in it,” says Raley.

In Witness for the Prosecution, a wealthy woman named Miss Emily French, aged 56, is found dead from a single blow to the head. Arrested for her murder is Miss French’s new friend Leonard Vole, a much younger – and married – man, played by associate trial attorney Noe Gonzalez.

But what could possibly be his motive?

Well, Miss French recently changed her will, leaving her whole fortune to Leonard.

Defending Leonard is Raley’s character, Sir Wilfred, a barrister approaching the end of his career.

“He’s still got some game,” says Raley. “The circuits realign in the courtroom for him, and I think he is someone who genuinely seeks truth… He believes in the British system of justice. He believes that it will uphold the truth and that if someone is innocent, competent counsel should be able to acquit them.”

Across the aisle from Sir Wilfred Robarts is the younger – and cockier – prosecutor, Mr. Myers, played by commercial litigation attorney Mark Gonzalez.

“It’s the young bull versus the old bull,” says Raley. “You get the idea that these guys have clashed many times before. They know each other’s tendencies, and there are a few times you’ll see where we’ll kind of nod to each other like two knights on a battlefield saluting.”

The back-and-forth between Sir Wilfred and Mr. Myers is sure to leave the audience unsure of what to believe.

“And that’s classic Agatha Christie, isn’t it? Because it could be one thing and it could be another,” says Raley. “But I think that, for me, Sir Wilfred really believes his client is innocent and knows that his client is seriously at risk of being executed for a crime that I don’t believe he committed. That is tremendous pressure.

"Can you imagine the pressure that you would feel being in that situation?”

Raley understands the pressure better than most. At the age of 40, he found himself on the radar of the New York-based Innocence Project. Though he had been practicing civil law for about 17 years, he had no criminal experience when they asked him to take on a murder case.

“Arguably, I was the least qualified lawyer in Texas to handle the Michael Morton case,” Raley says with a laugh.

In 1987, Morton was convicted of killing his wife, though he consistently maintained his innocence. Raley spent almost seven years on the case, and Morton was finally exonerated and freed from prison in 2011. Since then, Raley’s successfully handled five such cases.

“If you Google me, that’s probably what you’ll see – that I have worked to help free innocent people from prison,” says Raley. “Combined they spent something like 97 years in prison, and they’re all actually innocent.”

Raley points to the sentences handed down to these innocent people: Morton, life imprisonment. Alfred Dewayne Brown, who sat on death row for ten years. Hannah Overton, life with no possibility of parole.

“She was going to die in prison in 40 or 50 years, because she was in her thirties. When her children came to visit her, they had to put their hands up to the plexiglass because she wasn’t permitted to hold her children,” says Raley. “Things like that weigh on you.”

Raley adds, “I’m bringing all of that into Wilfred Robarts – all of my experiences in innocence work and in pro bono exonerations of innocent people, the pressure you feel of believing with all your heart that your client is innocent and yet they’re in this fix and if you don’t help them no one else will.”

For Leonard, his alibi depends on the key witness, his wife Romaine, played by Judge Nata Cornelio of the 351st Criminal Court.

“That’s a part that requires great acting skill and she’s going to deliver,” says Raley of the “femme fatale” role famously played by Marlene Dietrich in the 1957 film adaptation. “She has to play different roles and different roles differently, and the audience doesn’t really know what to think about her any more than I do [as] Wilfred Robarts.”

Raley is happy to concede that Christie is a great storyteller – “that’s one of those things that go without saying, so of course I just said it,” he jokes – but adds one of the reasons Witness for the Prosecution still resonates is that it is about the truth, and that doesn’t get old.

“You want to think that these kinds of pieces are still timely, that the search for the truth is still crucial and that sometimes in the clash of opposing viewpoints the truth can emerge – and sometimes not, which is also a lesson. But that’s not a reason to stop seeking it because it’s important,” says Raley.

And that’s good news for Houston, as it means there just may be some more courtroom dramas in our future. Maybe.

“It seems like every August now we’re checking the boxes on the classic lawyer plays,” says Raley, noting Cone Man’s past summertime, lawyer-filled productions of Inherit the Wind and Twelve Angry Jurors (an aptly titled adaptation of Twelve Angry Men because, as Raley puts it, “newsflash: women are on the juries now”).

“I don’t know what’s next, but when the rights to To Kill a Mockingbird become available, maybe we can do that one,” says Raley with a laugh.

Performances are scheduled for July 28-August 12 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (and Monday, July 31, and Thursday, August 10) and 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 6, at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. For more information, visit $15-$40.