You gotta be careful for what you wish for . . .
Your dream just might come true. Over. . . and over . . . and over again.
Like trying a case to a jury my first day in the Major Trial Division of Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court system..
For two years, I was biting at the bit to showcase my few legal skills before 12 jurors deciding the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant. I was among the last of 15 new attorneys hired by the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the city’s public defender office, to get a chance at jury trial practice.
It took me longer to learn the legal profession lingo. Heck, I had trouble with English, let alone the Latin terms needed to influence a judge with how much jurisprudence I knew. By the time I got to Major Trials, more than half the Class of 1988 was advising me on what to expect for the trial, and the procedure leading up to “demanding” a jury to hear a case for the first time in my legal career. (Before finishing a 20-year-stint, I’d “demand,” and would try, more than a hundred jury cases — once doing 10 jury trials in the span of nine weeks, an informal record at the PD office.)
Demand is the correct word, by the way. A criminal defendant facing more than 6 months in jail has an automatic right under the US Constitution to assert his or her right to trial by jury. God bless our forefathers. Most people never need to face a “jury of their peers,” unless chosen to serve at the county or federal government levels.
In Philadelphia, all the more serious cases were earmarked by Court administration for “Major Felony” treatment. That is, for a possible jury trial. Cases involving less serious felonies were scheduled in the “waiver” program. They were cases legal professionals believed would be tried to a judge sitting without a jury when a defendant would “waive” the right to a jury trial. Hence, the term “waiver” trial.
Many lawyers prefer waiver trials, also known as “bench” trials where one person learned in the law — a judge — renders a verdict. It takes less time, preparation and overall wear and tear on a lawyer to try a case to a judge than to a jury, and some of Philadelphia’s best trial attorneys have been known to avoid jury trials like the plague.
Not me. It was the main reason I went into the practice of law. That is, after getting a “D” in a Labor Law class and took it as a sign from God to seek a different field to specialize. (I got a C-Plus in my Criminal Law classes!) Jury practice offered me a chance to act before a captured audience and to get people to like me. Actually, to get ’em to like my version of the facts presented them over a three- or four-day jury trial.
That’s about the average time for such a procedure, including the “Voir Dire” where the defense attorney and a prosecuting attorney get a chance to ask each potential juror questions to determine any biases. We’d choose a jury of 12 and two alternates from a “panel” of 40 people, rejecting a few for various reasons. Picking a jury would take a full day on the average. An uncomplicated case could be tried in two or three days, with deliberations taking anywhere from 15 minutes (shortest I ever experienced), to several days. Some ended after jurors became “hung,” that is, were unable to reach a unanimous verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial.
But the chances of a new attorney “demanding” and trying a jury case his first day “on the job,” so to speak, were slim and hardly ever heard of 20 years ago. Unless you had my luck. And then you ended up with one of Philadelphia’s worst judges — worst for the defense — your first time up to bat.