#7 The Jury Trial Where I Try to be Mean

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.

#3 The Jury Trial Where I Learn About Constructive Criticism

Remember when I told that DUI’s are where new criminal prosecutors often cut their teeth on jury trials?

Jury trial #3 involved a DUI where the defendant had been pulled over for speeding, he exhibited routine objective signs of intoxication, admitted to having 1 beer with dinner, and had marginal success on the field sobriety tests administered to him. His BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) was .12% approximately 15 minutes after driving.

Pretty basic fact pattern right? Well, the lesson here isn’t in the guilty verdict. In fact, it never really is. The mistrials and not guity verdicts are where I’ve learned the most. However, this particular case was an eye opener for me despite the successful outcome.

Sometimes when you see the same thing over and over again, like in an assignment like DUI’s you forget that while some of the facts are similar, every single case is different. This is because fundamentally the purpose of a jury trial is to provide the defendant with their constitutional right to have the issue of guilt decided by a jury of their peers. It’s unique because it affects them on an individual and personal level.

Victims also have a constitutional right to be present at all court hearings and have their opinions, their suffering, and their loss taken into account at sentencing. It’s the human factor that makes each trial separately important, because while it may be similar in nature to other criminal events, its important and life altering for the victims of the crime and the defendant who stands accused.

The investigating officer in this case loved DUI’s because of the formulaic structure, just like I love jury trials involving DUI because of the relatively straight forward presentation of evidence. The pattern provides guidance, but sometimes that structure can become commonplace.

After the verdict the majority of the jury held back so that they could meet with meet with me and the defense attorney. They wanted to provide specific feedback on this very issue. While it was directed at the officer who investigated the DUI, I felt that it rang true in DUI trials as well. The members of the jury felt that the words used to describe the objective signs and symptoms had simply become routine descriptors in our officer’s investigations and counseled that they would like him to pay attention to his word choice in the future. For example, the officer in this case testified to seeing “slow, thick, and slurred speech” when in reality, the body camera footage showed “slight slurring” of speech. They specifically said that the officer in this case sounded like he was talking about ANY DUI rather than this SPECIFIC DUI.

The officer and I worked together after receiving the feedback to figure out ways to present future DUI’s without sounding generic. We decided that more focus on the word choice for both defendant’s physical manifestations of impairment, as well as a slower breakdown of the field sobriety tests (i.e. why they were used and what specifically the defendant did during them that caused him to pass/fail). Body cameras were relatively new in this area around the time and so we discussed using that tool to review the investigation completed when drafting the final report.

The constructive criticism the jury provided in this case has stuck with me. It is a reminder of the importance of criminal prosecution. We must balance the rights of the accused, the rights of the victim, as well as the safety of the public in every single case. And while the facts may be routine, this duty is far from it; which is why every jury trial is unique and important, no matter what the crime may be.