[For the penultimate section in “Resurrection of Sound”, I was given the opportunity to speak with Maria Parden, lead prosecutor for the Williams Trial. I met with Parden, who is currently retired and living in Philadelphia, in an outdoor cafe near Fairmount Park. As her sole condition for holding a discussion with me, she requested that our interview be published in the form of a complete transcription. “I don’t like to be misquoted,” she explained.]
Have you decided what to order yet?
I’m not sure. There’s a lot.
The turkey sandwich is astounding, get that. I wake up every morning at eight, go on my walk, and come here for a late lunch. I always get the turkey. Keeps me coming back.
Wait, how long do you usually walk for?
Four, maybe five hours, depending on if I see any people I know who want to stop and talk to me. However long it takes me to get the pedometer up to fifteen miles.
[I make a bit of a face without realizing it. She smiles.]
At my age, I don’t blame you. Just about everyone seems to have that reaction, including friends just as old as I am. It’s sad.
You enter your seventies, regardless of what you did in life up until that point, everything’s going to get harder. Physically and mentally. That’s just life, genetics, whatever you want to attribute it to. But what you do still matters. If you don’t stay active and keep up with things, you start to break apart. And it’s fast.
I mean that, too. I’ve seen it so many times by now. You get people who worked their whole lives, who were completely there in mind and body, who spent the last fifty years dreaming about plopping down in a cozy chair one day and not having to think about anything anymore. And then it finally happens, and they retire, and after around a few months they start to realize that the chair isn’t quite as cozy as they were expecting it to be. But it doesn’t matter, because they can’t stand up anymore. So then they’re shut in all the time, which limits how much they can socialize, how much they can interact with the outside world, how much stimulation they receive… and that all rots the brain. And then, however much time later, you’re left with an empty husk binge-watching Judge Judy reruns.
That’s how it goes. The moment you surrender to the chair, you’re already dead. Speaking of Judge Judy, look at her! I read an article the other day; she’s ninety-six! Ninety-six and still at it, as cogent as ever. She understands, I’m sure. How important it is to make sure you don’t shut yourself off from everything.
Is that a big thing among people in the legal system? Judge Judy?
It’s a big thing among Americans, Ms. Stone. I wasn’t being a snob when I brought her up, to clarify. I’m a big fan.
That’s a little surprising to hear. I didn’t think the show was… particularly accurate.
What do you mean by that, Ms. Stone?
It’s fake, isn’t it?
How do you think they film it?
Not at all. You heard the theme song, didn’t you? The people are real. The cases are real…
Well, that’s what they say. But that’s just reality TV. Not reality.
But it is! What they do, you know, is they find all sorts of small town cases that would normally go to small claims court, and they invite both sides to come on the show instead of hashing it out there. No matter what happens, they pay for the airfare, hotels, food, along with a little stipend for the TV appearance. Then, whatever amount Judge Judy awards to either party — I think it’s a max of five-thousand, I can’t exactly recall — the producers pay that instead of the losing party having to.
[She takes a sip of water, gesturing for me to give her a moment.]
Sorry, still thirsty. But yeah. Everybody wins. If you’re a plaintiff with a legitimate claim, you get your money faster and easier. If you’re a defendant who would otherwise need to shell out money for whatever you owe, you get somebody to pay it off for you. If the case ends with neither side winning, well, hey, you got a free trip to Los Angeles and a chance to be on national TV. And other than the defendant not having to pay for their mistakes, I can’t think of any serious bits of it that aren’t technically real. Before doing the show, Sheindlin was a real family court judge.
Well, still. It’s not that good of a representation of the legal system, I’d imagine.
And thank god for that. Come on, Ms. Stone. Do you think that people engage with media because of how accurate or true to life it is? Maybe there’s a few weirdos like that out there, but for the most part, consumers just want satisfying entertainment. And there’s nothing easier and more satisfying than Judge Judy. It’s easy, it’s simple, it’s gratifying. The bad guy is punished, the truth is obvious and easy to reach with a short discussion, and the righteous are fairly compensated. All of that in about seven minutes, granted to us by our spunky benevolent Queen of the Law, who is never wrong, never misled, never incorrect. There’s many, many reasons for why our court system isn’t like that, and there’s many more why it shouldn’t be, but it’s a guilty pleasure of plenty of people in the law, I’m sure, to imagine a system like that being real. It’s a beautiful illusion. Harder to get much farther away from that illusion than the Williams Trial…
[I let out a small smile.]
Hey, now. You liked that, right?
Ha. Before going into law, I was a journalist, so I have a lot of experience at both ends of this. Reporters and interviewers go so crazy for a good segue, I’m telling you…
But, yes. The trial. God. What a shitshow.
In what ways?
Anytime you get the media latching on to a criminal trial like that, it’s all but guaranteed to get ugly. It infects everything, makes every step all that more miserable for everyone involved. The fact that they pleaded innocent in the first place was so horrifically egregious, so I can’t really blame people for wanting to see them get what they deserved. It was only natural, after that video.
Was it that much of a surprise for you that they didn’t plead guilty?
In the sense that I wasn’t expecting them to, yes. In the sense that I had trouble believing that they could? Not at all.
[She picks up her glass and takes another small sip. Her face grows stern.]
Some people said that they did it because they thought they had a chance of getting off, and considering that they were up against life sentences, that they went with the small chance instead of the zero chance. Maybe that’s possible, but that’s not what I think, with what I know about them. They wanted to make it as long, as dirty as they possibly could. They were trying to hurt those girls. It was vengeance. They wanted to drag them through hell.
[The waiter comes and takes our orders. I order the turkey.]
Jury selection is another thing the media ruins. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s very important, jury selection. Cases are won or lost before they even begin. From an objective perspective, the idea is for the court to provide an unbiased group of twelve, but that just not possible in a situation like that. You know, in other big historical media trials like this, they often couldn’t find anyone who both hadn’t heard of it and was fit for a jury. So they would compromise; they allowed some folks who had heard the names, the tiniest details, whatever… but who hadn’t been keeping up with it. There were people who had only seen an ugly face and an accusation and a name on the news, and they were fit enough to serve, under those circumstances.
[She puts the glass back on the table in order to gesture. It hits with enough force to make a sound.]
But you couldn’t do that here! We had the video. They were playing — it’s so repulsive to me that this was ever allowed — that one little fragment on the news, with the strike to the knee, over and over and over. Her face was blurred, as if that mattered, as if it made it any less exploitative, any less vile to show that. And those collective decisions by the media and everyone who decided to spread it online turned what should have been an absolute slam-dunk into one of the biggest nightmare cases I’ve ever been a part of.
[She shakes her head.]
One of, god. What am I talking about. It was by far the worst.
[She looks up and shakes her head again, quickly turning back to look at me.]
In cases like these, the largest part of any successful defense is going to revolve around discrediting evidence. A lot of people, from a historical perspective, think of the Williams Trial as the first big case involving certain new trends in social media or sociology or the news reaching a new low, but there was something a lot more important than that at work. Technology.
You’re talking about the accusations of false evidence?
Yes. They came close to not allowing the jury to review the video on the grounds of it having been “ruined” by the way the media chose to display it, but they couldn’t hold onto that, in the end. What they did manage… the first seriously-regarded and publicized instance of a defense team trying to paint evidence as deepfakes.
You already know what those are.
Yeah, but you required me to publish this as an uninterrupted transcript, so I won’t be able to add in the third-person narration that briefly explains what that is for readers unfamiliar with the term. So I have to coax you into explaining it.
[She laughs again.]
Direct. I love that, Ms. Stone. Well, deepfakes are, for all intents and purposes, “perfect fakes”. Video, audio, images, whatever. By 2023, technology had for the first time reached the point in history where you could, with enough skill, money, and know-how, manufacture evidence of anyone doing anything. It was bound to come up in a criminal context at some point — beyond celebrities suing people who had made fake porn of them — and the Williams Trial was the first big instance of that.
[She looks at me, smiling.]
It’s all about creating doubt, crafting that narrative. Getting people confused about what’s real and what’s fake and who they can trust and who they can’t. When they dragged in expert after expert, all claiming to be able to spot the obvious little details in the video that proved it to be fake, then we had to do the same, but in reverse. And jurors — this is really mean but really true, I’m sorry to say — are idiots. Because everyone is an idiot about the things that they don’t do for a living.
People have hobbies.
Sure, sure. There’s hobbies. Not too many people have expert-level interpretation of video manipulation as a hobby, unfortunately, and that was our problem. Once they’d established that in the jurors eyes as something to be questioned, that gave them a lot of room to work with. Then you had Sophie’s testimony — it’s not her fault, as nervous as she was, with everything she was going through — but it was so, so terrible for us. Being that honest and nervous at the same time… it was practically impossible for her to actually come off like she was telling the truth. It didn’t matter that she was… she just wasn’t believable, from the viewpoint of a juror.
[She shakes her head.]
It destroyed her credibility, and that’s what let them construct that whole conspiracy with her as the mastermind. Crazy, how much work they put into that. You can’t hide burn marks and shattered tibias, but you can pretend that someone else is responsible for them, that they had been threatening the parents, that their “connections to the computer science industry” meant they could have had something like that made… anything. Those people should have been disbarred. I’ve always maintained that.
[The waiter comes and brings us our food. The turkey is fantastic. We start to eat for some time before continuing on with the conversation.]
It could have been much worse. What they wanted to do was find a big name violin professor or soloist to testify on how impossible it would’ve been for a girl that young to have learned in the way that Sophie described. They couldn’t find one willing to do it. The whole music community was so incensed over what was happening, god, I was surprised they didn’t just rush into the courtroom and strangle them both to death right then. They had to settle for an elementary school music teacher. We tore them to shreds for that.
[She wipes her bottom lip.]
It came down to the girls, really. Which is what the parents wanted. They loved that. And Clementine, that hero of a kid, she was willing to testify. The fact that she wasn’t allowed to was the most… it makes my blood boil, to talk about it now. I still get mad about it. We won, and I still get mad.
[She takes a breath.]
There was, obviously, the easy way of establishing the truth of the video. To have Melly play. They wouldn’t let her testify either — they cited her young age along with the same “emotional unreliability” garbage they pulled with Clementine — but they couldn’t stop us from simply demonstrating that much.
[She smiles, weakly.]
Obviously we didn’t have her do it in court. We ended up showing that right near the very end, the new video we made. Her sitting in a hospital, legs wrapped up. She was playing, we had her play… first we had her play Paganini, since it matched up to what they’d seen. We were worried about her being too traumatized to fully recreate it, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem in the slightest. She killed it. And then…
[One last sip.]
And then, to add, we had her do a rendition of “Der Hölle Rache”. It’s from Mozart, The Magic Flute. “Hell’s Vengeance Boils In My Heart”. It’s originally an aria sung from a mother to a daughter, threatening to disown and curse her if she doesn’t follow her orders. Melly didn’t know that, and I know that she couldn’t have fully understood the significance of what she was doing, but that’s not what it felt like. She stared right at the camera the whole time. There was a fire in her eyes, I swear. She knew, some part of her. When they played that clip in court, all I could focus on was Salina’s face. I still think of that as the most satisfying moment of my life. Not a dry eye on that jury, let me tell you. Melly…
[She looks up.]
I’m sorry, wait. Does she still want people calling her that?
I don’t think so, no.
Sorry. It’s… Hallie, right?
Yeah. I’m sure she wouldn’t be mad about it.
That surprised me so much, when I read about that. To think that she’d still be that successful, after what happened to her. It always amazed me, working in the courts for so long, seeing people that resilient. There’s such absolutely garbage in this world, but there’s these incredible, incredible people, who come away from these awful monsters and bloom into something beautiful. I bought one of her digital albums after I heard, and listening to that… I was crying. I’m not a big crier, to emphasize. But that got me. It’s getting me now, thinking back to it.
[She clears her throat. I nod. We’re both somewhat choked up.]
You’re going to talk to her, right? I know she was being quiet since people found out about her true identity. She was the one to approach you, I assume?
Yeah. She came to me, wanting to give her reasons for staying hidden for so long in the way that she did. To clear things up. She was going to make a video of it, at first, but she said she thought text would be a better medium for it.
That’s wonderful. Really, that’s wonderful. I’m proud of you, Hallie. You’re doing great.