Posts Tagged ‘trial’

Making the Jury’s Job Easier – and Better

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Anyone who has served on a jury or tried a case knows that the American jury system is pretty stupid.  Don’t get us wrong — it is absolutely without a doubt a sacred institution designed to ensure justice better than any other system we know of — but it’s still stupid.

Think about it — You take a dozen people who probably don’t practice criminal law.  You tell them they’re going to be deciding someone’s guilt or innocence, and then you shove a few weeks of testimony and exhibits in front of them.  But you don’t tell them what the law is — what they’ll be applying — until after all the evidence is over.  You don’t tell them what they should have been listening for, until it’s too late.  You don’t let them ask questions of witnesses to clarify points they didn’t get.  When everything’s over, and it’s finally time to tell them the law they’re going to apply, you simply read it to them for a few hours.  You don’t let them take notes.  You don’t give them a copy of the law you just read them.  They are presumed to have memorized and applied correctly the intricate flowchart of criminal elements for each crime, definitions of legal jargon, and all the other attendant instructions.  If they ask for clarification later, you simply read the instruction to them again.

And that’s not even half of it.  On top of all that, you make them do the judge’s job, in addition to their own.

The jury’s job is to make findings of fact.  The judge’s job is to make rulings of law.  The jury’s job is very important — their job is to decide on the official version of the facts.  The court cannot do anything until the facts are established, and then it can take the necessary action — whether it be punishing the guilty or freeing the not guilty.  But the determination of “guilty” or “not guilty” is a legal conclusion reached by analyzing the official version of the facts.  And in our system, we tell the jury to make that ruling of law.

In fact, those who were not in that jury room will only ever see the ultimate legal conclusion, and will only be able to speculate as to what the actual facts were on which that conclusion was based.  Based on studies of jurors (and anecdotal discussions after many trials), it appears that a large number of verdicts are based on flawed application of the law to the facts — or even without any such application whatsoever.  People are found guilty of crimes where jurors did not think essential elements had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  People are found not guilty of crimes where the jurors were actually persuaded of the necessary elements.  Jurors hang, or screw up, because they don’t understand what they’re doing.

The system is stupid, and almost guarantees injustice.

Fortunately, the problems are easy to fix.

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One simple fix, which resolves quite a few of these inanities, would involve little more than (more…)

Cross-Examining the He-Said/She-Said Witness: 3 Simple Steps

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

 

Plenty of us are familiar with the basic skills of cross-examination: Always lead, Don’t ask that one last question that lets the witness deny the conclusion you want to draw, Don’t ask a question if you’re not pretty sure of the answer, Don’t let the witness explain, Take it one fact at a time, Have a goal, etc.  They’re good rules to follow in pretty much every case.  But they’re not really a blueprint to follow for crafting a useful cross.  Every case is different, and each witness requires a different strategy.

One of the most challenging types of cross-examination comes in the he-said/she-said situation.  That’s not just domestic disputes, but any situation where there are only two people who really know what happened, and one of them is testifying against you.  Maybe it’s a purported victim, telling a story about a date rape that your client insists was consensual.  Maybe you’re a prosecutor in an undercover buy-and-bust, and the defendant is testifying to a story completely different from what your undercover is saying.  It happens in all kinds of cases, to all kinds of lawyers.

The he-said/she-said is especially tough when the other side’s witness is telling a cogent story that makes sense on its face.  Taken at face value, it rings true — though that doesn’t mean it is true.  A false story can be concocted out of pretty much any factual situation, and a lie that fits a juror’s worldview can be more believable than the truth.  A lying witness has lived just like anyone else, and has just as many experiences to test the believability of their stories against.  By the time the witness is testifying, there’s been plenty of opportunity to hone and perfect that story.  (And, of course, they might just be the one telling the truth, or at least the version closest to it.)  It’s hard to even prepare for such a cross.

If all you’ve got to challenge them with is your own side of the story, you’re not going to have a very effective cross-examination.  Q: “Are you telling this jury that my client’s story is wrong?” A: “Yup” — that’s not how to win a case.  But lots of the time, that is all you’ve got.  What can you do?

Well, when all else fails, there are three simple steps to a basic but effective cross-examination here.  When all else fails, and you’ve got nothing else to go with, you can always do these three things.  It may not guarantee you a victory, but if you do these three things, you will have at the very least done a workmanlike job of it.  And often enough, it gets results.

STEP 1: LOCK IN THE STORY

The first thing you do is (more…)

We’re Back, Did Ya Miss Us?

Friday, November 20th, 2009

So Much Win

Finally, the trial that would. not. end. is over. Three weeks to try a case that should have taken no more than five days. In the case that just would not end, either. The arrest was more than three years ago — that’s plenty long to have a felony case hanging over your head.

Especially one as over-charged as this one. A responsible prosecution team would have charged maybe 3 counts in this case. But for reasons unknown, the folks who originally brought the case in 2006 went into insane overkill mode, charging 18 counts.

Now, finally, 15 of those original 18 counts have been acquitted or dismissed. A lesser-included thrown in there at trial, to give them a second bite at the top count, was also dismissed. All the big charges got kicked, along with most of the little ones. The jury only said “guilty” to three of the b.s. minor charges that had been tacked on to this bizarrely over-charged indictment.

We’re calling this one a win, because this is precisely the outcome the client wanted on day one. It’s what he’s repeatedly asked for over the three years this case has been going on. And yet, from the get-go, this prosecution team has obstinately insisted on a plea to the charge, from day one. (They did so even after the judge, after their main witness had been pretty much destroyed in a day and a half of cross, firmly suggested that the offer be made.) It took three years, and three weeks of trial, to get to where this case should have been at arraignment. Where it would have been, had these prosecutors done the right thing.

Why didn’t they? Good question.

We come from the Manhattan DA’s office, where this sort of thing just isn’t done. This was not the crime of the century, there were no victims, nobody got hurt. The defendant didn’t commit perjury in a grand jury, not having testified. In a halfway decent DA’s office like Manhattan, the prosecutors would have exercised their prosecutorial discretion, as is their duty, and extended an offer.

But here, the prosecutors abused their discretion, by not exercising it in the first place. If you think that sounds like misconduct, we’re not sure we don’t disagree with you. But we’re still not sure, so we’re not identifying the office in question.

The likely reason is that there was a clash of personalities between the original prosecution team and the original defense team, which then became institutionalized over time.

The official reason, however, is just as unjustifiable. The official reason is that the defendant did not let the prosecutors break the law.

In New York, when a defendant hasn’t made bail and so remains in jail after arrest, we have a “speedy charge” rule. The government has six days to get an indictment, or else he gets released so he can do the rest of the case without posting any bail.

These prosecutors wanted the client to waive that requirement. They wanted him to agree to stay in jail for as long as they needed to get their act together and get an indictment in their own time. Because he didn’t, they said they would never make any plea offer whatsoever.

This is their official office policy, it seems.

And yet that is totally improper. It is nothing more than a policy forbidding the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, in retaliation for the mere refusal to give up one’s rights. That’s wrong on at least three levels.

That retaliatory aspect probably also explains why they over-charged this case so dramatically in the first place. And why they persisted in refusing to make an offer even after it was perfectly clear that they’d never get a conviction on any of the felonies.

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Whatever the reason, they lost big-time here. The jury threw them a bone on some of the little stuff, but they can’t see that as a win. It’s nowhere near what they’ve wanted for three long years, what they got so invested in.

So yeah, we’re calling this a win. Not an epic win, but definitely a win.

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Well, now we’re back, and we’ll have more time to blog on what’s going on out there. Plenty has gone on in the past three weeks — from the Bear Stearns acquittal, to Lynne Stewart starting her prison sentence, to a cop tasing a 10-year-old girl who wouldn’t take a bath. But it’s too late to blog in a timely fashion on those things. Sigh.

Oh well, there’s always more! Criminal law does not disappoint.

(Okay, we can’t resist. The girl who got tased? What’s up with that? We’re not talking about the cop using such extreme force on a little girl. We’re not all that concerned that he only got disciplined for not having a camera on the taser. We’re not even perturbed that he responded to a call of, essentially, “come arrest my kid who won’t take her bath.” We’re angered at the mom who made the call, and all the other moms out there just like her. This is a common symptom of the what Big Government programs and entitlements have done to ruin the very classes of people they were meant to help. We now have had generation after generation of people in inner cities and elsewhere who have been raised to expect government to do everything for them. They never have personal responsibility. Government provides all, does all. It also controls all. It takes charge of everything. When that’s all you know, then you reasonably expect government to take charge all the time. So moms commonly call the cops to make their kids clean their room, go to school, etc. The same moms (almost never raising these kids with a dad), lacking in a certain quale of personal responsibility, seem also to share the inability to properly rear and socialize their offspring. So these kids sometimes wind up getting locked up after the police arrive. And then the moms call their public defender in tears, unable to believe why their kid is locked up. Unable to comprehend the inevitable answer: “Ma’am, you put him there.” This is of a piece with the reasons why projects turn into ratholes, because it’s nobody’s responsibility to take care of them, it’s the government’s job. Why the schools suck, because the single factor affecting the quality of a school, parental involvement, is entirely absent because it’s not the parents’ job to educate, it’s the government’s job. This is a mindset that does not naturally occur in Americans. Maybe in Europe, where they are used to thinking of themselves as subjects rather than citizens, where the government has all the power and thus all the responsibility. But not in America. The only reason this mindset exists is because our well-intended big-government programs and institutionalization first removed the incentive to take care of oneself, and then destroyed the ability to do so. Rant off.)

Massive Rise in Hung Juries? Deal With It.

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

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Although juries have existed in one form or another since ancient times, the jury as we now know it originated in 12th-century England. At first an accusatory formality, the jury evolved into a check on governmental power. Nowadays, an accused’s right to have the evidence against him judged by members of his community is one of the most essential requisites of criminal justice. Juries also ensure a public perception that the system is just — a necessary precondition for the system to actually work.

But justice requires that juries actually make a decision. And new statistics show that they’re refusing to in ever increasing numbers.

When someone is accused of a crime, the law prescribes certain actions that can be taken by the justice system. It’s so formulaic that much of it could be done by a computer: if the defendant did X, Y and Z, then he goes to prison; if he only did X and Z, he gets probation; if he only did X, then he does not get punished. But before the law can be applied to the facts, the law needs an official version of the facts. We need it so we can move on to the next step, so defendants and victims and witnesses can get on with their lives. A computer can’t do that. It is the job of real people, the jury, to define that official version of the facts.

If a jury refuses to make a decision, justice is delayed. The accused must suffer continued anxiety and uncertainty until another trial closes this distressing chapter in his life. He must double down on the expense of defending himself, and on the stress it puts him and his family through. Victims and witnesses have to go through the trauma of testifying all over again. Another pool of jurors has to take time out of their lives.

But modern sensitivities have made the hung jury ever more commonplace. We’re not supposed to be judgmental. For decades, ethical relativism and cultural sensitivity have been a major part of our socialization. Gen-X kids like me, taught to be politically correct in college, are now entering middle age. The Millennials now entering the workforce have learned these sensibilities since birth, and for many it is viscerally wrong to pass judgment on another. This oversimplifies the matter, of course, but the fact remains that a huge portion of the population now feels significantly more uncomfortable in the role of juror.

These same generations had parents, teachers and professors who lauded the civil rights protests of the 1950s and the antiwar protests of the 1960s. Now they are more likely to use their jury service as a protest — they don’t care what the facts are, they have an agenda in conflict with their role as jurors. Maybe they simply don’t want to put another young black man in jail, and further decimate their community. Maybe they simply want to use their jury service as a vague protest against an oppressive system. We’ve seen plenty of those kinds of jurors, too.

The results have been dramatic in recent years, as the numbers of hung juries have skyrocketed. In the birthplace of the modern jury, the BBC reports that hung juries increased 30.7% in 2007, and a whopping 70.6% in 2008.

Still, this isn’t cause for alarm. Careful jury selection can often identify people who simply cannot pass judgment, as well as those who have a political agenda. Lawyers and judges can use voir dire to educate jurors about the importance of their role, so that they overcome their discomfort and do their job.

Alarmists want to prevent hung juries by allowing majority verdicts in criminal trials. If a holdout is holding up justice, reformers would negate that holdout’s influence, and let a vote of 10 out of 12 be sufficient (as it already is in England). But that is an end run around justice — the principled holdout who refuses to give in to pressure is an iconic figure in public perception. Norman Rockwell painted it, for crying out loud.

No, we’re going to have to play the hand we’re dealt. If the venire is more likely to harbor holdouts, we are just going to have to do a better job of getting across to them, or weeding them out. The jury is the democratic participation of the community in the administration of justice, a system better adapted than any other to the protection of the individual against oppression by the state. As Lord Devlin said, a tyrant cannot rise unless he “overthrow or diminish trial by jury.”