#8 The Jury Trial Where the Verdict Was Reached Outside the Courtroom

A lot of effort is involved in keeping our jurors insulated from any outside influences that could affect their opinion of the case. The Court gives them instructions that jurors cannot do any independent investigation, cannot look up or research the people involed on the internet, or do any research on legal concepts. Lawyers and investigators and ordered not to speak directly to jurors at all. Not even a “good morning” or a “hello.” We have to avoid even the appearance of inpropriety.

A jury trial is supposed to take place inside a bubble. The lawyers guide the facts as allowed by the judge and the Court instructs the jurors on the law. It’s the jury’s job to apply the law to the facts in that little bubble to see if a crime was committed-proving that is a prosecutor’s job beyond a reasonable doubt.

#8 was a battery case between two women who were involved in a road rage incident. The defendant got mad because she thought the victim’s vehicle cut her off and then refused to let the defendant pass as both vehicles traveled own Forbestown Road in rural Butte County. The defendant followed the victim into the parking lot of a grocery store and confronted the driver about it. The victim, got out of the car and between defendant and the driver, telling defendant to leave. Defendant then grabbed the victim by the hair and punched her in the face numerous times, leaving a bruise over the left eye and a clump of hair pulled out.

At trial the defendant claimed self-defense saying the victim struck first by chest bumping the defendant numerous times forcing the defendant to stand her ground.

In assaultive crimes the prosecution has to prove that it was not self-defense, which can be a tricky thing to prove. How do you prove a negative? We usually rely on the facts and circumstances of the incident-who threw the first punch, who intiated the negative conduct, the severity of injuries or their location, past history between the two parties etc. We use circumstantial evidence to show that the only reasonable conclusion was that this was not self-defense.

Defense can bring in character evidence of the victim showing they have a tendency to be violent and only then can we rebut that with character evidence of the defendant doing the same.

Self-defense is tricky. And in this case, the only witness we had who was not directly involved in the road rage incident did not see the beginning of the fight. To further complicate matters every witness in this case, including the defendant, provided slightly different versions of events; the case was three years old by the time it got to trial and while everyone tried their best to remember what happened, details fade as time passes on.

Our victim in this case testified and was put through a rather brutal cross-examination regarding her tendency towards violence. She got a little heated with defense counsel on the stand but overall handled the pressure well. What happened outside the courtroom after she was done testifying ultimately swayed this jury to a not-guilty verdict. The jury had been released for lunch and was walking out to their cars. As they did they saw our victim yelling at someone on her cell phone while standing in the hallway of the courthouse. The jury later told me they beleived that the victim was quick to anger based on how she conducted herself in their presence.

In a perfect world the jury would not have seen victim out in the hallway yelling on her cell phone. It was not part of the trial, it was not evidence, and it should not have been considered. But we don’t try cases in a perfect world and the fact of the matter is that everything that happens in a jury’s presence can and will effect the outcome. This one was outside of my control and while the inability to control this behavior was frustrating, it also taught me to be aware of what everyone involved in the trial is doing at any point in the jury trial, because we want to preserve the bubble as best we can.

#4 The Jury Trial Without a Victim

My fourth jury trial introduced me to the world of domestic violence. To say that as a prosecutor we never really know how a domestic violence case is going to pan out in front of a jury is an absolute understatement. These are the cases where prosecutors have to be prepared for absolutely every possibility. There are a couple of reasons why I believe this happens:

  1. Victims don’t show up to court. In domestic violence cases everyone has a heightened emotional state at the time of the event. When the dust settles and the real life consequences on a family relationship put in the criminal arena begins; often it just becomes too much for a victim to handle.
  2. Victims change their story. Victims of domestic violence are usually under an immense amount of pressure: they have lost the ability to co-parent, they usually lose an income, they don’t want someone they love to go to jail. The reasons for stories to change goes on and on. Often prosecutors don’t know what a victim is going to say on the stand until the testimony starts.
  3. Witnesses are often family members. This includes the children of the parties. Family members are reluctant to be involved.
  4. Victims become overly cooperative. This can also be a red flag. Sometimes and unfortunately law enforcment contact is used to influence family law cases. As a prosecutor we always have to look at the family law case to see what is being said by the parties in their corresponding family law cases to get a better understanding of the bigger picture.

Domestic violence often happens behind closed doors and so every scrap of cooberating evidence supporting the victim’s statement becomes key. We use small bits and pieces of those observations and evidence law enforcement finds to get to the truth between what he-said and what she-said. Always the best practice it to be able to rely on something other than the statements made by either party to prove the crime that occurred.

Trial #4 involved a female defendant and a male victim who had been in a relationship for approximately 22 years. They had recently broken up but the victim continued to live on the same property as the defendant, just in his own mobilehome. On this occassion victim and defendant got into an argument because the defendant beleived the victim was not sympathetic enough to his adult son’s situation and she went to victim’s mobilehome to confront him about it. She was told to leave; however defendant did not. Instead she got upset and grabbed victim by the jacket. The victim then punched her in the face causing a laceration to the defendant’s chin.

This was a misdemeanor level domestic violence battery. Minor, but documented injuries to the victim and a corroberating injury to the defendant. There were some pretty complex legal issues to convey to a jury in regards to self-defense that came up. Namely that the defendant shouldn’t be able to claim self-defense in a situation she created and the fact that the victim had a right to reasonable self-defense in response to her conduct. We relied on defendant’s own admissions of guilt made to law enforcement and photos taken of injuries in our case-in-chief.

Our victim also relocated out of the State prior to the jury trial and that opened the door to allow defendant to take the stand on her behalf to tell the jury about what happened INSIDE her house before defendant confronted the victim at his own. Information our office was not privy to at the time of the arrest. Information we could not discuss the accuracy of with our victim. Information we could not overcome at trial.

This rocky road of a trial taught me so much.

Evaluate self-defense prior to filing and make sure we can prove beyond a resaonable doubt that the defendant’s actions were not in reasonable self-defense. As a prosecutor that is always my burden to carry and it should never be overlooked.

Non-verbal communication can have an affect on the outcome of a trial. We had a non-traditional DV here. One were the female was charged. She took the stand using a cane and used assisted listening devices in the courtroom. Defendant also testified as to medical issues that she was having at the time of this incident and through the trial, lending her as a sympathetic soul to the jury.

A jury will always wonder where your victim is, even if they are told not to speculate.

Our Judge in this case was a long-term retired judge who had been filling a vacancy in our County for so long he was a permanent fixture. He had seen and heard it all. As soon as the jury left the courtroom, he turned to me and defense counsel and said, “Well this isn’t going to take long.” He was right, 10 minutes of deliberation to a not guilty verdict.

#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.

#1 The One in Which I Had my First Jury Trial

The year was 2012. I had been a lawyer for about 6 years in the civil sector with nary a jury trial to my name. You see, what they don’t tell you in law school, that jury trials in the civil sector are expensive, which means working for a small boutique law firm in rural Northern California gives you zero opportunites to have a trial go out.

After Maizy was born I set out on my own, opened my own practice and worked next to my family and their shirt shop they had owned my entire life…but that it a story for another day. Let’s just say that it got to a point where I had to decide whether to hire a legal secretary and work full time or pursue my dream of working in criminal prosecution. Criminal prosecution won that battle and my first jury trial came about 8 months later.

As a new prosecutor I was assigned to work in the misdemeanor division. This is a fast paced part of the DA’s office. So many cases come through any misdemeanor prosecutor’s door on any given day and this is where you are expected to cut your teeth on jury trials. On this particular ocassion the Court had become disillussioned with the number of cases pending trials and set multiple defendants with multiple cases for the same jury trial dates. Something was bound to get out.

I spent the weekend (the cases were confirmed Friday morning for a Monday jury trial) prepping ALL of my cases. And there was a stack of them. 3 defendants in total. 2 each had 1 case a piece and the final defendant had 3 cases. At the very bottom of the stack was a relatively simple case of driving on a suspended license. It was the very last in terms of priority and unlikely to confirm, or so we thought.

Monday morning came around and I watched as the cases were called widdling down to the very last one. One defendant failed to show up. One pled. One case had a necessary witness that was unavailable. And so we had it. My first jury trial was going to be Driving Under a Suspended License.

It was relatively straight forward. The case boiled down to an officer observing the defendant driving. Based on prior contacts the officer knew the defendant’s license was suspended. The defendant was contacted in the parking lot where he had parked and admitted his conduct. Proof of the suspension came from certified DMV documents that showed proof of notification of the suspension was received. To add to the mix, defendant opted to testify on his own behalf in the trial and TOLD THE JURY HE HAD BEEN DRIVING. A guilty verdict was received.

When the defendant tells you he did something, you beleive it.

One of the most poignant traditions we have at the DA’s office is a tie-cutting ceremony which occurs the first time you receive a guilty verdict on a trial. My scarf (no ties were worn by me) was off of the burgandy blouse I had worn in trial. It hangs in a case with my DDA counterparts as evidence of a job well done.