What Being a Jurist Taught Me

5 or 6 years ago I had the occassion to sit as a jurist in the Lucas County Common Pleas Court. I recall sighing heavily upon getting the notice in the mail. A solopreneur, I wasn’t happy to potentially lose a week of business for the sake of doing my civic duty.

Little did I know what would come from this new perspective.

I was numerically high on the list, in the first group to be interviewed through voir dire and was selected to sit to hear arguments in a case determining the extent of damages the defendent should pay to a surgeon who suffered injuries during an auto accident.

I don’t recall the exact make-up of the jury, yet I believe there were slightly more women than men, not like the Norman Rockwell work pictured above. Yet, the tone of the room during deliberation did get intense as Rockwell has captured.

In my experience I recall a few key moments overall that lawyers and judges should understand and prepare for not only in creating their case strategy, but in their presentation performance.

The tone was set immediately by the judge
I was eager to pay close attention during the procedings based on the introduction the judge gave to the jury.

Without remembering the content of his opening, I was struck by his personable, informative nature. This judge took time with us, helping us to understand what was expected, showing respect for our lack of experience in court and easing us into the process. It appeared this judge was there to supervise and mediate vs. to reprimand or pontificate.

My initial distast when seeing my jury notice was transformed. This would be a memory that lasts. I was engaged.

First impressions are lasting
I didn’t know until after the proceedings were over the defense attorney was arguing her first case. It didn’t show, which meant, it didn’t matter.

What did matter to me and to several other jurists – although not the majority – is the presentation style each displayed. The prosecuting attorney was overly confident, aggressive and slightly bombastic in his performance.

He asked us to consider an exorbitant amount his client should be paid for medical costs, loss of income and loss of quality of life. He spent much time on expert testimony of the degree of injury his client suffered and included the client’s wife as a witness. Although his strategy seemed lacking in my eyes, what I experienced first was his lack of respect to the jury.

Unless he was glaring at us, he seldom made eye contact. While he had an air of expectancy about how we should find the case, it seemed he doubted we would agree with his thinking. I couldn’t shake my prejudice against him. Instead, I sought to find holes in his logic.

On the other hand, the defense attorny treated us graciously. She appeared authentic, honest, factual and gave us the benefit of the doubt. She took care with us – as I assumed she did with her client. Her manner was considerate.

I knew her client was guilty, yet I still wanted her to win. My focus was on greatly reducing the financial burden. I was motivated by this attorney’s respect.

It only takes one to change opinions
Once we jurists were in the jury room, the case was out of the attorneys’ and judge’s hands and in those who are willing to speak up.

A woman who in her professional life is a caretaker volunteered to act as foreman. She began by stating she saw no reason to deny the damages request – for weren’t we obligated to follow through with it based on the defendent’s guilt?

My eyes exploded as I saw a number of “yes” folk nodding their heads, timid or unprepared to express themselves. I let a few minutes go by to hear what I needed to hear, see what I needed to see before questioning the logic of more than $300,000 due the victim.

“This amount is ridiculous,” I said.

Eventually another jurist added to this perspective which then led to 4 or 5 others to agree there must be a more equitable amount.

“What about $50?” I asked, really wanting to stir the pot. At that point, the Norman Rockwell moment happened. The air was sucked out of the room. People feared we’d never get away with it. After about 20 minutes of shifting from, “can we even question the amount” to “what is fair and reasonable for the school teacher defendent”, we landed on around $30,000. We all agreed this would be a painful consequence for anyone and yet not so outlandish as more than a 1/4 of a million! It handled to a degree the punitive damages while sending a message that the prosecuting attorney was extremely off base.

Although at first people didn’t want to bring it up, several agreed they disapproved of the prosecutor’s attitude and handling of the jury. They tried to be objective – moreso than I did – yet as we came to our conclusions on the fine, we relaxed into it. This was based on how we felt about our experience with the prosecutor.

As we entered the courtroom to deliver the decision, the air was sparked with energy. For me it was due to the power of influence – both in the courtroom and in the jury room.

Lawyers and judges, you can expect to see me observing your courtrooms. I’m ready to observe the energy that moves people into action. It only takes one to move a jury – is that one, you?

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On August 19th, 2011, posted in: behavior, defense, jury, presentation, prosecution by