The Cross-Examination of Joanne Johnson By Mishlove and Stuckert, Attorneys at Law on March 07, 2023

In 1964, I was a nine-year old boy.  I loved baseball, fishing, playing soldier, catching fireflies, and riding my bicycle to the public library.  Even though I was the pudgy kid, and not very athletic, I spent most of my free time running or riding around doing something or the other.  I wasn’t very good, though, in team sports.

Fond du Lac, Wisconsin was the kind of place depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings.  A working-class to middle-class town of 24,000, on a lake.  It had a big tool and die plant, a boat motor factory, some farm implement companies – the usual.   One summer the circus came to town, set up a tent in a farm field on the edge of town, and had a parade down Main Street. Parades down Main Street were a big deal in Fond du Lac.  It was the kind of town where no one locked their front door, even if they were gone for the day – the kind of town where kids would leave the house in the morning, yelling “Bye Mom,” and Mom would yell back, “Be home for dinner!”  We walked to school, walked home for lunch, and walked back to school in the afternoon.  We lived near the middle of town in a drafty Victorian house with worn stairs. We had a big front porch with a porch swing.  The rich people had new ranch houses on the outskirts.

It wasn’t all idyllic, of course.  There were, maybe, a couple hundred Jews in town.  Everyone knew who we were. My Dad owned a small furniture store. I was always the only Jewish kid in whatever school I attended, whatever little league team I joined.  I was always “the other.” And some people were sure to remind me every chance they got, including some of my teachers.

Even so, it was a good childhood. I had friends in the neighborhood, and my best friend, Scott Chapin, lived next door.

I hadn’t yet discovered girls, that was a couple of years away.  But there were a couple of girls in the neighborhood that I will never forget.  Jean Johnson was my age, and her sister Joanne was a year younger.  They lived on the corner in a big Victorian that was more elegant than many on the block.   Jean was a year taller than Joanne but they looked alike.   They were redheads, with freckles. Jean was taller than me, I think, lanky and a good athlete – much better at kickball and foursquare than I.  She was better in art class too, her trees looked like trees and she was careful to color inside the lines.  I didn’t know Joanne as well, but anyone could see that she was also smart, a good athlete, and pretty – even though I didn’t notice such things then.

It happened on a nice day before 4th grade let out for the summer.  It was sunny, and we attended Jefferson School, two blocks to the north.  I was running home from school, and as I approached our block, I saw Joanne up ahead.  She was lazily ambling along and as I approached, she turned and looked at me with a smile.  I noticed the smile, because the Johnson girls were not too friendly with me, they were after all … girls.  I didn’t know what to make of Joanne’s smile, while she looked at me and said, “Hi Andy!”    

As I look back on it almost sixty years later, I wonder why I reacted as I did.  It wasn’t a thought, so much as a reaction.  Jean, her older sister wasn’t very nice to me.  I didn’t know Joanne too well.  I felt a bit threatened by her show of affection, I guess.  I was not going to be the one to be ridiculed this time.

So, I ran past her and muttering, “Hi stupid!” not giving it too much thought but feeling a little bad as I knew I had hurt her feelings, although I felt secure that I had not let down my guard either. I put that part out of my mind, then, and for the next fifty-eight years.  I just went home, turned on the black and white television, and forgot about it.



I don’t remember if it was a phone call, or a visit by the police to our house.  It was that night or the next day.  My father was angry. Not the shouting angry, but the real quiet angry, which could be worse.  He said that I hit Joanne Johnson.   I hit Joanne Johnson, hurt her, and we had to go to the police station.  Joanne’s father had called the police because I hit her, and I had to go be interrogated.  I didn’t hit Joanne, it was a lie. But I was scared.  I’ll never forget the car ride three blocks to the police station. My father said over and over, “Her father’s a fireman, she wouldn’t lie!”  But it was a lie and I told him so, over and over.

The police station was a 1950’s white stone building painted pea green inside.  They took me into an interrogation room, my father with me.  I recognized the detective, since we used to see him driving around town in his plainclothes car, wearing a suit, but you could tell he was a cop. He had black oiled hair, thick and combed back, but with a white streak in the middle. I knew I was in real trouble because they had a detective in a suit interrogating me, so it was real important.

I don’t think that I had ever been in a room that small before.  I could feel the heat from my Dad’s body.   “Just tell us why you hit her!”  “She wouldn’t lie!” “Why would she lie?”  Over and over again.  I was nine. My Dad was on their side.  It went on for a long time. 

“How did she get hurt then?”  

“I don’t know, maybe she fell!” 

“Did you see her fall?” 


“Then how do you know she fell?  She fell because you hit her?”

“I didn’t hit her!”

Over and over again.

I never told them that I called her stupid.  I was scared.  Scared of what?  Scared that if I admitted what I had done, it would open the floodgates of guilt over me.  And where would that take me?  Uncertainty is terrorizing.

I knew she lied because I hurt her feelings, but I couldn’t admit it.  I put it out of my mind for decades. I forgot her smile, and I forgot the hurt look on her face. I pushed the insult that I hurled to a back corner of my mind.  I denied hitting her, over and over again, because she was lying, and I never hit her. Almost sixty years later and the memory of that room still frightens me.

I was never punished. I thought that they would throw me in jail, but they never did.  In those days, we all got spanked or even the belt for something really bad, and our fathers would say, “Son, this hurts me worse than it hurts you.”   My Dad never spanked me, never grounded me, never yelled at me.  But he never believed me.  No one did.  And truth be told, if I had done it, I would have lied to avoid the belt.  But I didn’t do it, and that fact that no one believed in me hurt worse than all the whippings in the world.

The police must have interviewed people in the neighborhood because it seemed like everyone knew about it.  My teachers and our neighbors all stared at me, and sometimes yelled at me.  At least that’s how I remember it.  My Dad sold the furniture store (lost it, maybe) and we moved to the big city a few months later.  I thought that I was the reason that we had to leave town.

I still go back to Fond du Lac. I occasionally try a case there, see the place where the police station was, see the old Johnson house, go look at my childhood home.  It always hurts. Joanne Johnson haunts me.  I have fantasized about tracking her down, finding her online, and confronting her. I imagined a brilliant cross-examination where I reduced her to tears for the tears she caused me, and she admitted, “Yes, yes, I lied, you never hit me. I lied and I’m sorry!”  I even tried to find her a few times.   I was Perry Mason zeroing in on her vulnerability, exploiting it, and exacting the supreme confession of guilt.  But, I never felt any better for that fantasy.

Just a few weeks ago, right before 2022 Trial Lawyers College Grad 2 course, I was listening to a TLC podcast with Rafe Foreman and Jacqui Ford.   Jacqui was talking about cross-examination of the accuser in cases of false accusation of sexual assault.  She said that in these situations the client often has a role in the false accusation, and if she can truly discover the client’s story and understand that role, she will then learn the story of the false accusation.  Her cross will be understanding, empathetic, and persuasive.  She doesn’t need to get a confession from the accuser, just get her story out in the open so the jury will see the truth of the matter.

As I listened to Jacqui, the memories that I had repressed flooded back.  I recalled Joanne’s sweet smile, and her warm “Hi Andy!” I recalled my insult, “Hi stupid,” and the hurt look on her face.  I saw my role in it, and I was able to forgive the scared, maligned, betrayed nine-year-old boy inside me.  More importantly, I was able to forgive the hurt eight-year-old girl who accused me.

The TLC-trained 67-year-old lawyer that I am also realized that if I ever run into Joanne Johnson, we will have a conversation about her pain and mine.  And if I were to ever get the chance to cross-examine Joanne Johnson, that cross-examination would be much like that heart-to-heart conversation.  I would not attack her, but I would empathize with her hurt, her helplessness, and her need to tell her father that I hurt her, because my words hurt her.   While she might not realize or admit her lie, she would wear it on her sleeve for a jury to see. 

Now, If I had really hit Joanne Johnson, I would have told my best friend, Scott Chaplin.  I told him the truth and he was the only one who believed me.  My family left Fond du Lac a few months after this incident. I had no contact with Scott for nearly sixty years, but it always mattered that he believed in me.   We connected on social media a couple of years ago. He lives in Denver, so after the TLC Grad 2 just a few weeks ago, after almost sixty years I saw him again for the first time, told him this story and thanked him.  If I get the chance, I will thank Jacqui and Rafe.  And I will never cross-examine quite the same way again.

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Andrew Mishlove and Lauren Stuckert

Mishlove and Stuckert, LLC Attorneys at Law

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