When you are first learning how to be a trial lawyer you often get encouraged to try different techniques. It can be as simple as using a different method to introduce photos, or maybe using your body language and positioning to suggest important details as a witness testifies. Techniques also include your own tone as a lawyer while questioning a witness or presenting closing argument. There is a lot you can do with your volume, your cadence, or your body language to be persuasive.
I like to try out new techniques to see what works and what doesn’t. One of the benefits of working in criminal prosecution is that I am in the courtroom a lot so I get to see other attorneys practicing law on a regular basis. I’m exposed to different ways to approach our job all the time and the only way to figure out what works for you, and more importantly, what doesn’t work for you, it to try it out and see what happens.
Trial #7 was a domestic violence case involving a boyfriend and girlfriend who had gotten into an argument over the defendant taking the victim’s ATM card. Victim tried to get her card back and defendant grabbed her arm, putting her into a control hold. Both fell into the couch and as defendant got up he kicked the victim.
Victim and a witness, who was in the apartment at the time, both took the stand and both changed their story. They were inconsistent with each other, with the prior statements they made to law enforcement, and with the 911 call that was placed. To put it plainly, this case fell apart on the witness stand.
Because I had nowhere left to go with my evidence, I decided to take a different approach in my direct examinaiton of the victim. I thought perhaps if I was more assertive with my questions through aggressive behavior perhaps the victim would respond in a way showing her unwillingness to testify in court, which would highlight the lies she was telling the jury.
My overly assertive behavior was viewed as just being mean. The jury, the defense attorney, and the judge all commented about the stark difference in my questioning. The defense attorney even said, “man, I didn’t think you could be so mean.” To be clear, I wasn’t being mean. I was being direct. The line of questioning was crafted to call a witness out on her lies without skirting around the issue. In reality, it sounded like a personal attack on the victim by an overly aggressive prosecutor.
One of the most invaluable tools I have learned is that for me, as a female, it does not play well to a jury if I am overly assertive. I want this to be different. I routinely watch my male prosecutor counterparts get away with direct examination exactly like the one I had crafted in this case. It is where I got the idea to try it in the first place. But, when I tried it the attention turned away from the evidence and landed right on me and my “attitude.”
I’ve talked to other female prosecutors in this area and they report similar feedback with overly assertive behavior. Some of my counterparts make it work, others adjust. I have learned to adjust. At certain times with certain witnesses, I can get away with a question or two that cross the line into assertive+, but this trial, and others, have taught me that in my own personal trial practice, an entire line of questioning in this style will not work for me.
Ultimately, my job is to guide the jury through the evidence in a way where they can understand both what it is and why it is important. Then my job is to provide the jury with the tools and arguments they need at the time of deliberation to determine guilt. If I dissappear into the backdrop at the end of the case then I have done my job. Trial #7 ended with the focus on me, which does not serve justice in any way; it is a lesson I carry with me in the preparation of every case that I’ve taken to trial since.