Back to the Bar

updated 02/05/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

IF JOHN GRISHAM THOUGHT THAT THE saga of a lawyer turned famous writer returning to court after seven years for one last case—pitting a grieving widow against a megabucks corporation—wouldn't hold irresistible appeal, then he hadn't been paying attention to his own sales figures. Striding into the courthouse in little (pop. 10,200) Brookhaven, Miss., last week, Grisham, 40, was mobbed by reporters and ogled by fans but showed he hadn't lost his folksy touch. "I haven't done this in a long time," he told potential jurors, "and I've got the jitters, so if you're feeling a little bit jittery yourselves, that's okay."

But for the presence of Grisham, King v. Illinois Central Railroad would be an ordinary—if tragic—wrongful death suit. In 1991, John Wayne King, 45, a 25-year veteran of the ICR, was working in the rail yard in nearby Bogue Chitto when a freight car began rolling downhill. King tried to pull the hand brake, but the car slammed into another, crushing him to death. He left a wife, Barbara, now 49, and three teenage children. (The railroad contends that King was responsible for his own death since his job was to make sure the car was secure in the first place.) At the time, Grisham, who is married with two children, was phasing out his local litigation practice to devote himself full-time to writing.

But he agreed to take the case anyway. And though he has since become one of the biggest-selling authors of all time, with such smashes as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, he felt an obligation to see the suit through.

It is unclear if his down-home charm and celebrity wattage will help sway the jury. (Grisham is asking for an unspecified amount of damages.) Whether or not Grisham, who lives in Virginia, receives a cut of any award, the more than $50 million he has earned from six novels probably ensures that he will keep his day job.

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