Sunday, February 11, 2018

Everything Matters

I finished a trial mid-morning on Friday. If your first question is, "Did I win?", the answer is, as always in criminal defense, dependent on your definition of "win". My client was not acquitted. He was sentenced to a rather lengthy term in prison. But I convinced the jury to find him guilty of a lesser charge, and I convinced the judge to impose the least amount of time possible. So, a win? Certainly not. But a loss? Not entirely. However, the result of the trial and the sometimes shifting definition of win and loss in criminal court is not the topic today. Rather, I want to talk about a lesson I've learned several times over the years, but which needs relearning (at least for me) again and again. The lesson, and therefore the title of this post, is that in trial (as with most things) everything matters.

After the trial was over, I spoke to several members of the jury. I don't always do that. Speaking with juries can sometimes be a frustrating and near-infuriating experience. But a good portion of the time, I learn some things in the dialogue. Such was the case this time. A couple of the jurors told me they were initially puzzled as the evidence started to come in. Why was there even a trial? The State had surveillance video, credible witness testimony, a lineup identification, and admissions by my client to police. But they told me they could tell I was taking the matter seriously, and not just phoning it in. One of the jurors said it was clear from my questioning that I was leading somewhere, even if they didn't see it at first. Another juror said the way I dressed, the way I spoke, even the way I buttoned my jacket whenever I stood told her that she should pay attention to what I said. The defense theory of the case was not that nothing happened, or even that it wasn't my guy. Rather, I was arguing that the client had not committed the crime charged. That the State was overcharging and overreaching, and that justice and the rule of law required them to not simply accept the charge in front of them. This is not usually a popular argument, but you have to work with what you have. As I said, it worked, at least to a degree. I had hoped to convince them of an even lesser charge but the judge had not permitted that charge to be considered. Once again, however, the point is that it was the little things that got me results, even down to dressing and conducting myself professionally. It wasn't that my arguments were so dazzling as to to be irresistible but more that attention to detail caused them to listen in the first place.

I've learned this lesson many times over the years, but it's easily forgotten. The ego becomes enamored of one's own perceived brilliance, and it becomes easy to convince yourself that all you need is for the jury to hear your scintillating arguments and all will be well.  But that arrogance can come through to a jury, and they simply won't listen to you, no matter how brilliant the argument. In some regards it's a humbling lesson. But it's also empowering. Taking care of detail got a result that simple argument may well not have. So, no matter how difficult or daunting the situation, focus on doing the little things right. Enough of the little things will often add up. Win? Maybe not. But not a loss. And that's something.

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