Special Reports

Witness coach at issue in wrongful-death suit

It’s no surprise when attorneys argue about how to argue, but the latest scuffle in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the City of Tacoma raises the spectacle to a new level.

Attorneys for the family of Crystal Brame, slain wife of Police Chief David Brame, want a crack at Angela Dodge, the woman they call the city’s “witness coach.”

To date, the city has paid Dodge $25,460 for her services. She is not a lawyer, but a self-described trial consultant and social psychologist who specializes in witness preparation. She is the co-author of a book called “When Good Doctors Get Sued,” a manual aimed at physicians defending malpractice lawsuits. Her writing partner was Steven Fitzer, senior partner of the Tacoma law firm hired by the city to defend the lawsuit.

Dodge’s name surfaced during the May 4 deposition of former City Attorney Robin Jenkinson. David Beninger, one of the attorneys representing Crystal Brame’s family, questioned Jenkinson about what sort of advice she received from Dodge.

Jenkinson admitted meeting with Dodge about a year ago, but Rob Novasky, one of the city’s attorneys, swiftly stifled further questions and ordered Jenkinson not to answer. The deposition transcript reveals several testy exchanges:

“Did she (Dodge) tell you how to dress?” Beninger asked Jenkinson.

“Objection,” said Novasky. “Don’t answer that. Going into the realm of attorney-client privilege and work product.”

“I’m sorry,” Beninger said. “There’s some sort of legal advice as to her dress?”

“You heard my objection, Counsel,” Novasky replied.

The dispute has since escalated. The two legal teams filed back-and-forth motions in King County Superior Court over the past few days. The next round of arguments starts Thursday at 9 a.m.

The Judsons’ attorneys want to depose Dodge, and ask her questions about preparation methods, such as telling clients what to wear and how to speak.

The city’s attorneys oppose it, arguing that her work is protected by attorney-client privilege.

The war of words intensified Tuesday, as Beninger offered his spin on the city’s expert.

“Why are they spending so much time and money coaching the truth out of the shadows and into the light of day?” he asked.

Novasky dismissed the argument, and fired back.

“The use of consultants to assist in various stages of preparing for a trial is a common practice and I think it’s a practice that they use,” he said.

Beninger agreed that most lawyers will coach witnesses before testimony, but he argues that the use of a nonlawyer consultant is less common.

The flare-up over Dodge obscured several statements from Jenkinson’s deposition that could pose difficulties for the city’s long-term defense. The lawsuit hinges on the Judson family’s claim that city leaders knew of Brame’s erratic behavior before he fatally shot his wife and himself.

Under questioning from Beninger, Jenkinson mentioned the actions of former assistant police chief Catherine Woodard, a key figure in the case.

A month before the shootings, Woodard spoke with Crystal Brame about her divorce, and heard her complain about death threats from her husband, but told no one.

“She ought not to have engaged in contacting the spouse of the police chief to have this discussion about the dissolution,” Jenkinson argued.

A few moments later, Beninger asked whether Woodard should have reported the conversation to then-City Manager Ray Corpuz.

“I think so,” Jenkinson said.