Moot court Nirvana

A McGeorge Law School professor uses Kurt Cobain’s suicide as setting for mock trial

The controversy over Kurt Cobain’s messy death lives on at the McGeorge School of Law in Oak Park.

The controversy over Kurt Cobain’s messy death lives on at the McGeorge School of Law in Oak Park.

illustration By Dan Samborski

Kurt Cobain? Still dead. The official story is the guitar-wielding frontman for the Seattle-based rock trio Nirvana took himself out 15 years ago with a shotgun.

Or did he?

Cobain, in life, possessed the kind of magnetic persona that pulled in a generation of rock fans; in death, at age 27, he became an icon of rock music’s tragic beauty. Even today, his band’s music touches many listeners in those deep, hard-to-reach centers of emotion.

Next month will mark 20 years since Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, was released. If there’s a two-decade lag between a pop-culture trend and the nostalgia wave that inevitably follows, the moldering corpse of grunge—that loud, messy style of rock born in rainy locales like Seattle—will soon be reanimated for another dance in pop culture’s boneyard.

That revival is beginning to spring up in unlikely places. Several years ago, at the McGeorge School of Law in Oak Park, professor Joseph Taylor became fascinated with the murky details of the case—specifically, the questions raised by Tom Grant, a Beverly Hills private investigator originally hired by Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love. Cobain had gone missing at the end of March 1994, after leaving a rehab facility in Marina del Rey, Calif. He turned up dead a few days later nearly 1,000 miles north, in an over-the-garage greenhouse at the Lake Washington home he shared with Love in Seattle. The private eye had a hunch something wasn’t right, a myth that persists to this day.

So, in much the same way a screenwriter might employ case files of the Black Dahlia murder to provide a template for a film-noir script, Taylor used Grant’s body of information, along with other sources, to flesh out a hypothetical civil case that could be tried by student attorneys in a mock court proceeding. His objective was to construct a case wherein both sides would be evenly weighted, and winning would depend entirely on the skills of case preparation and advocacy that the attorneys would be bringing into the courtroom.

“We’re certainly not putting Courtney Love on trial,” said Taylor, a tall, graying man who looks like a Norman Rockwell vision of an avuncular lawyer. He took great pains to point out that his 160-page case file is a work of fiction. “From a teaching standpoint it was nice, because it didn’t have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt; it was only by a preponderance of evidence. That was the difference in the O.J. Simpson [criminal and civil] cases.”

Taylor changed the names of all the particulars, using the 1947 rosters of the Philadelphia Phillies for source material. He’s constructed 11 of these mock cases, some civil and some criminal, each of which drew upon 1947 team rosters for names. “It was just the Phillies’ turn,” he said, adding that his allegiances lie with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A’s.

Like their real-life analogues, Charlie Gilbert and his wife, Cally O’Neil, were hard-partying rock stars—Gilbert with a band named Swarga, after a Hindu heavenly realm akin to the Buddhist nirvana, and O’Neil with Pit, a name that referenced Love’s band Hole. Gilbert’s father, as guardian of the couple’s underage daughter, filed the hypothetical wrongful-death lawsuit against O’Neil, alleging that his son didn’t die from a self-inflicted shotgun blast; instead he was drugged, and the post-overdose shotgun blast was rigged to make it look like he’d pulled the trigger.

The courtroom at McGeorge is circular. Santa Rosa Superior Court Judge Allan D. Hardcastle, a dead ringer for former Kings coach Rick Adelman, presided. To the left sat two teams of attorneys, a man and a woman for the plaintiff and the same for the defense. Across from the judge, along an inner circumference, seven jurors—volunteers from the community—were seated, where they could observe the presentation of evidence in the center of the room.

In the opening statements, the plaintiff’s male attorney, a young Alex Keaton clone, declared, “This is a case of love, one woman’s case of love for money,” before reading a poem that ended with the line, “It’s time to kill him.” Then the defense attorney, a woman with wire-framed glasses and hair pulled into a bun and bangs, referenced Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain before remarking about Gilbert: “A death rocker, dead at 27.”

The theme of “death rock” and “he was a death rocker” would provide a constant drumbeat throughout the day-long trial. Listening to these student attorneys—the men in dark, conservative suits with colored ties; the women in dark suits without ties—and the various witnesses they called, mostly fellow law students, discuss rock ’n’ roll culture was as incongruously akin to hearing Keith Richards and Amy Winehouse argue nuances of probate law over a bottle of absinthe.

After the opening statements, each side got four witnesses. The plaintiff used up the morning by calling a private investigator, loosely based on Grant; then a medical examiner and a handwriting expert, who declared the suicide note was authored by two people. Gilbert’s father, played by one attorney’s dad, testified last.

The defense opened the afternoon session by calling Cally O’Neil. Any anticipation that the student actor playing O’Neil might get into her role by freestyling a pharmaceutical-fueled borderline personality disorder rant to entertain the courtroom was immediately dashed; O’Neil was as demure as a Sunday-school teacher, with a whispery soft voice.

As a witness, O’Neil’s Pit bandmate Del Ennis came closer to a Courtney vibe, although she was more sorority-girlish than callow rocker. After a medical examiner and a handwriting expert to counter the plaintiff’s witnesses, it was time for closing statements.

All day, the defense team’s case exuded a bit more confidence than its opposition did; here, a use of visual cues—including an easel with poster paper containing a list of the plaintiff’s witnesses, deftly crossed off with red pen—drove the argument home. Court, after all, is theater, even if the emphasis is on facts over personalities; the advocate who stages the better demonstration can win over a jury in a close case.

Here, the male defense lawyer got too cocky, botching a rhythm loop in his PowerPoint presentation a couple times before thundering that the plaintiff’s lawyers “failed to do their job.” Nevertheless, the jury returned a verdict in favor of his client. Then, in a moment of hubris that made the audience laugh, he asked to poll the jury. The judge, about to deliver a post-mortem for the attorneys, admonished him. “You won,” he said. “You only poll the jury when you lose.”

After court was adjourned, the real Tom Grant, who watched from the audience, gave a short presentation. The private eye, who looks like a Daniel Clowes caricature of Al Gore, reiterated his belief that Cobain didn’t kill himself, that a conspiracy instigated by his widow was the likely culprit.

Citing “at least 60 copycat suicides” by what might be called Cobain’s more hard-core fan base, Grant stated his objective simply: “I want the verdict changed from ‘suicide’ to ‘undetermined,’” he said. “If that ever happens, I’ve succeeded in my job.”

And with a grunge revival set to attract many new fans, if there’s anything to this 20-year cycle of nostalgia, perhaps his efforts will save a few lives. Or at least make for interesting reading.