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Three things to look out for as trial begins
Court is confusing. Here are some things to look out for as my felony trial begins.
NOTE: I’m writing every day in memory of Lisa, who died on October 13. Not all of these posts will be sent out by email, and some I may write from jail/prison, as I go to trial on November 29. So if you want to follow this journey, visit the blog every day. I’ll try to post by 10 am each day, but occasionally, I’m sure a post will be late.
The first time I was in court, to argue for a domestic violence restraining order, I was shaking so hard I could barely even speak. Thank god the motion for the restraining order was an easy one; the facts were very much on our side. Because I utterly failed my client in my presentation and argument. My thoughts came out in a totally illogical manner. My tone of voice was that of an adolescent teenage boy (even though I was around 30 years old at the time). And I was so ashamed afterwards that I almost withdrew from representing the client — and probably would have, if not for the fact that she was a pro bono client of my firm, and therefore might have no lawyer if I withdrew.
The average person sitting in on court probably feels similarly confused, if not intimidated, by the experience of being in court. But what I’ve learned over the years, after watching many lawyers (many skilled, others less so), is that there are a few key things to look out for, when you are in court. As my trial begins, I thought I’d share some of those things, so those of us who don’t have as much courtroom experience can learn what to look for as the proceedings begin.
The judge is the most powerful person in the room.
There is lots of pomp and circumstance around the position of “judge” for a reason. They control much of the case, including what evidence is allowed in court, what witnesses can or cannot say, and (perhaps most importantly) the sentence if a defendant is convicted. Watching the judge’s body language and tone is important to understanding how a case is proceeding.
The members of the jury are the ultimate decision-makers. They’ll give clues on how they’re leaning throughout the trial.
There will be 12 members of the jury. All 12 must unanimously agree for a verdict to be issued. But typically, a judge will encourage a jury to reach a verdict if 1 or more jurors is holding out. Very few people can stand up to that pressure. It’s therefore important not only to see how each individual juror is behaving, but how they interact with one another. Is there a juror who is holding doors for the others, guiding them to their seats, or otherwise “leading the way”? That juror’s reactions to the evidence at trial may be more important than the others’.
The prosecutors will set the tone of the entire trial.
While the judge has the most power, it’s the prosecutor who typically sets the tone for the confrontation of the two sides. Are they aggressive and judgmental, or calm and “just following the law”? Do they object repeatedly, even when their objections are not sustained, breaking up the flow of the trial? Or do they do their best to play their hand in a fair way, as is required by law? The prosecutor in this case is known for being aggressive. So we can expect some fireworks at trial. It’ll be incumbent on everyone in the defense — and more broadly, everyone who supports us in the courtroom — to keep our cool and show the judge and court that we are not the “terrorists” or “criminals” that the prosecution wants to make us out to be.
My time over the next week will be short, and it wouldn’t be wise to share all my thoughts on each day of trial too candidly, until everything is over. But I will try to provide at least a brief update on this blog each day. Thanks to everyone for your support.