NORRISTOWN —As a pregnant Gertrude Fox lay bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds on a sidewalk outside a Lansdale home, she repeatedly pleaded with police, “Please save my baby.”
About the same time, homeowner and shooter Ellen Wright was telling police she acted in self-defense when Fox, who was having an affair with Wright’s estranged husband, menacingly approached her home with a baseball bat. Other witnesses told police an Acura “zoomed up and this crazy lady jumped out, screaming and waving a bat” before they heard several gunshots.
When apprised that Fox’s unborn child had died, Wright responded, “that’s an awful shame but she gave me no choice.”
It was murder and Jill Faith Neal wrote it.
“I like the drama of it,” Neal said about her attraction to the dark side of life and the crime plays she creates each summer for the Montgomery County district attorney’s mock trial program. “I don’t want to live through a real crime, it’s a horrible thing. I don’t want to come off as only loving violence and crime. But there is a realism to it that’s compelling. Also, I’m fascinated by motivations of people.”
Gathering ingredients for her mock crime, Neal, a 40-year-old married mother of three from Lansdale, carefully weighs the characters’ motivations for acting the way they do and each character in her intricate, well-plotted crime dramas has a backstory.
“So there is a little bit of human psychology that goes into it that is interesting. I think it’s fun to see the interplay between characters and the reasons that they do stuff,” said Neal, a brunette paralegal in the district attorney’s office whose business casual attire, fun-loving attitude, charm and bright smile belie her fascination with the seedier side of life.
“They certainly are fun. You have drama and conflict and mystery. Sometimes there’s a love triangle or a life insurance policy,” said Neal, just a slight, devilish tone in her voice.
Each summer, as she gives birth to killers, murder victims, adulterers and unseemly witnesses, Neal’s thoughts are consumed by plot devices and items to include in her creations — bloody slippers, incriminating text messages between thugs and handguns and baseball bats as potential instruments of crime.
“Look, it’s a mock trial, so I’m not saying it’s a Pulitzer Prize winning piece. But we take it seriously. We approach it seriously. It’s a lot of fun to do but we try to make it as realistic as possible,” said Neal, who’s worked in the prosecutor’s office since 2007.
During the annual intern trial competition, law students who spend their summers working in the district attorney’s office prosecute a hypothetical criminal case and the young lawyers are critiqued by District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and prosecutors who have worked in the trenches for many years.
Neal’s courtroom drama “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Ellen Wright” depicted a Lansdale woman who was accused of shooting her ex-husband’s new pregnant girlfriend, killing her unborn child. The defendant claimed she fired the gun at her ex-husband’s pregnant paramour in self-defense when the pregnant woman showed up at her home with a baseball bat.
“I love writing dialogue,” said Neal, who considers herself “a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino.” “I’m a product of a television age so everything I write tends to be very visual and then I’m heavy on dialogue. I love dialogue driven action.”
She’s worked on seven scenarios to date and over the years, the cases have become more elaborate and now include numerous witnesses and hordes of physical evidence. Neal, assisted in her creative endeavors by administrative staffers Jason Edwards and Amanda Stong, plants legal hurdles in her elaborate, make-believe plots, challenging the interns at every turn.
“She’s very good at this,” Edwards, an extradition coordinator in the district attorney’s office, said about Neal who is the driving force behind the creations. “It is amazing how she catches the dialect of characters.”
As part of the creative team, Edwards, a third-year law student at Widener University, analyzes legal issues associated with the mock trial, including making sure that charging documents, evidence and legal maneuvers are as legally accurate as possible.
“We also throw in some red herrings,” said Edwards, of Collegeville.
Neal gets help from staffers who offer story line ideas and advice about character dialect. Brainstorming sessions resemble television production meetings, with Neal and her creative team at a conference table passionately discussing the upcoming project.
“We flesh out different ideas. We have arguments. It’s a true creative process,” Neal revealed.
Stong, of Gilbertsville, enjoys working with Neal throughout the process, which includes creating police reports, crime scene photos, jarringly realistic 911 tapes, alibis and witness statements. The scripts often incorporate current legal or Constitutional issues relating to search warrants, the Castle Doctrine or straw purchase laws.
“She’s very detail-oriented,” said Stong, who has helped write mock witness statements and reviewed character text message dialogue to ensure the integrity of a story. “Jill does most of the writing. We just critique.”
Those who know her can’t predict where Neal might find inspiration for her next diabolical tale.
Walking to her car in Norristown recently after a long day’s work, Neal noticed an alley she passed and became fixated on it.
“Every time we passed this one alley I said that is so cinematic, that alley, just perfect, barbed wire, garbage, it’s deep and long and in the back recesses it’s dark and it has wooden steps and a fire escape that’s rusted, Dumpsters,” said Neal, breathless as she excitedly and descriptively rattled off the eerie qualities of her discovery. “Let’s make that our crime scene. That’s our dead alley.”
Photographs of the alley became evidence of a crime scene during one mock trial.
Advice and constructive criticism are readily available from prosecutors and defense lawyers she knows.
“The resources here are amazing. If we have a question about a search warrant you just email someone who’s done it. Within in five minutes you have your answer from somebody who’s done it for 25 years. It’s phenomenal,” Neal explained.
“If you’re writing crime fiction you should get a job as an administrative staffer in the D.A.’s office,” Neal joked.
Neal, who has a master’s in creative writing from Rosemont College in Lower Merion, was born in Camden, N.J.
“So crime’s been in my blood,” Neal quipped, cautioning she doesn’t want to offend those living in Camden but can’t resist a dark humor reference to a city well-known for its struggles with crime.
Neal, who counts “The Wire” “Breaking Bad” and “Orange Is the New Black” as her favorite television shows, said she reads some crime novels but also enjoys the works of Stephen King, John Updike and John Gardner, who taught fiction writing.
No surprise that “Law and Order” is another of her favorite television shows.
“The marathons, when they come on Labor Day weekend, heck yeah, I’m there, even if I’ve seen them 10,000 times,” Neal laughed.
At 22, Neal self-published a book, working a graveyard shift to earn money for the self-publication. While her peers were saving money to buy cars she saved to publish a book, which she described as the “ultimate road story about two people traveling, leaning on each other, sharing stories.”
Neal, who has written short screenplays and shot movies as a hobby or during her graduate school work, said a published crime novel or screenplay might be in her future.
“Maybe I should stop watching so many crime dramas and start writing my own,” smiled Neal, who has published two short stories and is currently working on a sports-related fiction novel.
The most “awesome” moment for Neal is seeing her script come to life in the courtroom.
“The real thrill comes from watching it. It’s an impromptu play that you’ve put together and it’s all happening in live time,” said Neal, who even donned a wig and thick glasses and dusted off her acting skills to portray a witness in one of the scenarios. “That’s the best part. When you’re sitting there and you’re watching them become the characters that you created, saying little catch phrases that you put on paper, that’s what’s awesome about it.”
Follow Carl Hessler Jr. on Twitter @MontcoCourtNews