Stephen Appelbaum Gives Lawyers a Hand, a Leg, or Any Other Body Part for Their Day in Court

updated 05/22/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Lawyer David Ironman's reaction was typical for a first-time shopper at the Evidence Store, a one-of-a-kind emporium in Union, N.J. After breezing past a T-shirted, life-size skeleton nicknamed Fred, which stood guard inside the front door, he began to scrutinize a model of a human skull that had been split open to reveal in vivid detail the contents therein. Ironman was enthralled. "This," he shrieked in excitement, "is excellent!"

No, David Ironman hadn't stumbled into a witch's den, and he isn't a man of ghoulish tastes. It's just that lots of lawyers who come here start acting like kids in a toy store, according to proprietor Stephen Appelbaum, 40. The Evidence Store, you see, stocks one of the most complete assortments of plastic, anatomically correct models of body parts to be found anywhere in the world. Whether a knee joint or a liver, each piece is readily at hand to be bought or rented by trial lawyers for use in court.

Say an attorney has a personal-injury or medical-malpractice lawsuit coming to trial. He could call on expert witnesses to describe the nature of the damage to a jury in a few thousand boring words. Or he could give his case a graphic spin with drawings, photographs and scale models. Obviously, a courtroom show-and-tell greatly enhances the prospect of jurors sitting up and paying attention.

Which is where the Evidence Store comes in. Much in demand, for example, is its line of herniated disks, including a deluxe model with two complete vertebrae that goes for $85. An entire spinal column? That can be had for $360 or rented for $30 a day. More grotesque is "Mr. Gross Mouth," a working set of jaws that can even be made to spit tobacco juice. This last item has never left his store, Appelbaum admits, but it's there "in case you ever want to show what gingivitis or cancer of the tongue looks like."

While anyone can obtain such things piecemeal by mail order from medical supply houses, the Evidence Store offers the advantage of one-stop shopping and off-the-shelf availability. Appelbaum describes his outlet as "the 7-Eleven of Demonstrative Evidence," where his customers can examine before buying or rent individual pieces only as required. If you need advice or customized service, that's no problem, either. Appelbaum is so accommodating that he will even crack a model of, say, a knee in just the right place so that the lawyer can point to the exact location of the injury.

Not every customer who walks into the Evidence Store, of course, is a minion of the legal profession. Appelbaum tells of an ex-college professor who belonged to an organization whose club symbol was a skull. "Maybe he needed one to bang the gavel on," Appelbaum speculates. "Obviously, my store wasn't intended for customers like him but, hey, what the heck." Appelbaum's route to his Evidence Store was circuitous. The son of a delivery-truck driver, Stephen was a withdrawn child until he was sent to summer camp at 12. There, just to get him involved in something, anything, a counselor named Chaim Potok (later to become a famed novelist) introduced Appelbaum to photography. In time he went off to the Rochester Institute of Technology filled with visions of one day traveling the world as a photojournalist for LIFE or Look, but his timing was bad. The two magazines, in their original versions, folded a few years later. Appelbaum resigned himself to more mundane work as a commercial photographer doing weddings and bar mitzvahs.

In 1973 a cousin who was an insurance adjuster commissioned him to take pictures of fire damage at a local library. One job led to another—slip-and-fall cases, product liability cases—and his photos began showing up in court. Soon, Appelbaum was doing legal photography full-time, and it remains the mainstay of his business.

The idea of the Evidence Store came from a friend, and Appelbaum began by acquiring Fred. But his clients didn't always need a complete skeleton, so just as the song says about leg bones being connected to thigh bones, Appelbaum started to stock spare body parts of all sorts. Today his Evidence Store does more than $300,000 worth of business a year, and he is seriously considering franchising the operation to other locales.

Appelbaum, whose home is in Piscataway, N.J., where he lives with his wife, Jane, and their 11-year-old daughter, Carly, says he has been around lawyers so much, that he has started to talk like one. Whether his customers go to court to represent plaintiffs or defendants, Appelbaum judiciously maintains a balanced neutrality. He disdains only the ambulance chasers in the profession. "A guy might come into the store and ask me to photograph a hole in the sidewalk where his client fell in," he explains. "He might say, 'If that hole doesn't look big enough, find and take a picture of another hole.' That's when I say no!" Objection sustained.

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