Closing argument opens me to trial by jury

The best part of trying a case to a jury was always the last part which is known as the “closing argument.”

I’d begin preparing the closing at the very start of a case. As a criminal defense lawyer, I would review police reports, witness statements as well as any physical evidence that would eventually be shown at trial.

Attorneys develop a “theory of the case” and that is what “kick-started” the closing argument for me. I dealt with aggravated assaults, robberies and drug offenses as well as a few low-level homicides. There are only a few theories to apply toward such defenses and I’d tried my best to fit the facts – or lack of facts – into one of the theories.

Each step of the trial was a part of the closing argument. That included the “opening statement,” the direct examination as well as the cross-examination of witnesses, and the decision to highlight a piece of evidence.

There’s nothing quite like cross-examining a witness who says something different from what he said at a previous court proceeding. We’d be given copies of preliminary hearing notes and knew what a witness had stated under oath before. I wrote out the statements and almost knew by heart key elements of what they said. When they stated something different, I knew I had them exactly where I wanted ‘em – trapped with a “prior inconsistent statement.”

I’m sure that you heard how lawyers should never ask a question without knowing the answer. I believe that is where it comes from. You’d ask questions based on what you gleaned from previous statements. When a witness changed their story, you’d zero in and create what is called an “impeachment.”

Were they telling the truth before, or are they telling the truth now? How can you believe anything they say?

Such a gift would almost ensure a victory.

I’d write out the closing argument the night before the trial was to end. I’d carry the yellow legal pad containing the argument from the defense table to the jury members sitting in the box. I’d refer to the pad and tell ‘em how I needed it because the case was too important to my client for someone like me to forget the details. I’d use the pad as a prop.

I’d also raise my voice at a crucial moment and then let my voice crack at an emotional part of the argument. I’d apologize for raising my voice as well as getting too emotional, as I tried to appear as humble as possible. It was all true — I’d really get into the closing for the benefit of my client, winning more jury trials than I lost.

——————

By the end of the closing, I’d be exhausted. I’d collapse as I took the seat next to the defendant and hoped my performance won over some members of the jury — enough for a “not guilty” verdict or even a “hung jury” mistrial finding by the judge. Too soon the verdict would be announced and I’d be back to square one as I started to review my next case, my next closing argument. It was exhilarating and rewarding whether you’d win or lose.

Ah hell, it was always better when you won!

6 comments on “Closing argument opens me to trial by jury

  1. WOW! I just didn’t realize how much “acting” was involved. But it makes sense. There’s a manipulation happening there, but it’s to make your case so I get it. Putting your arm around a big scary guy to make people feel comfortable is brilliant. Yeah, this is why shows like LAW & Order do so well. I love that you were inspired when you were young — by a pretty cool and smart attorney himself. That’s incredible. I’m glad you were a lawyer. I can tell you were on of the good ones helping good people who needed a champion! Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There was a time when I wanted to be a lawyer. And then something happened where I realized the ONLY part of being a lawyer would have been the TV part: the emotional, fierce closing argument! I feel that I had that idea about becoming an astronaut too — I just wanted to land back on earth and get all the praise for being in space, but not really have to do “all the other stuff” that went along with it (gotta love TV!). But wow, I love how you described the process — fascinating. I would really hate having to try and catch someone in a lie or “changing their statement” but that’s the work. Being part detective, part analyst, part a lot of things. Clearly, also a performer! I loved reading this! I’m clear now, I’m glad I never became a lawyer! I would have been horrible! Ha!

    Liked by 2 people

    • contoveros says:

      The acting was part of my trial experience. I knew the jurors would be watching me the whole time and so I kept up appearances like putting my arm around a big, burly defendant who looked guilty as sin to simply show he was no one to be afraid of …
      My mentor — a woman from my hometown — would have her back to the client as they sat at the defense table and ask him to go into her purse to retrieve something behind her. It was in full view of the jury. She’d show how much trust she had in the big guy!

      I’d also stand at the back of the jury box so that a defense witness would have to look in the direction of the jury to make eye contact with me. Some jurors must have thought the witness was looking at them. At one time, I stood directly in front of the jury box when introducing a mug shot of a prosecution witness to tip off somebody on their side was linked to a criminal. I got caught by the judge and admonished and ended up losing the case.
      ——————

      I never really liked lawyers per se. I knew of only one growing up. He was a blind lawyer my father retained to help my oldest brother get out of trouble in Philadelphia. He was charged with burglarizing a bar — stealing beer and soda from the place and was offered a deal of either going to jail or going into the army. The attorney talked my brother into enlisting where he served some 22 years, getting his GED, a college degree as well as a masters degree!

      I only went to law school upon hearing that one of the friends I made while at college entered law school in California. He was a Vietnam veteran who served as a clerk. We were both journalism students who eventually worked as reporters for different newspapers. We’d put the school newspaper to bed and then smoke grass in the dark room.

      “If Charlie Brown can be a lawyer, I can be one too,” I told my wife at the time. Three years later, I found myself in a courtroom arguing one case after another case.

      I had a lot of fun at it and have many good memories!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. wolfshades says:

    Man I loved reading this! It paints such a clear and painstaking picture of the work involved. i feel like I mimic this sometimes when trying to counter the continual falsehoods uttered by the deranged CiC these days – which, given the heat and vitriol offered by his supporters, I’ve elected to step away from, on account of it’s like attempting to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.

    But back to your account: was there ever a time when you knew your client was no-shadow-of-a-doubt guilty and ought to be in jail? I know how the argument goes: everyone deserves to have a fair trial. How guilty do they have to be before you would decline to represent them? I’m really curious on your thought process round that. (I’m thinking it might be a great topic for a followup blog, as I’ve a feeling the length of your answer might warrant it.) : )

    Liked by 2 people

    • contoveros says:

      Dear Wolfshades,

      I represented a 22-year-old fellow who was charged with eight counts of gunpoint robbery of state liquor stores in Philadelphia. Cops raided his girlfriend’s home and found several unique money bags that could have only come from the Pennsylvania state liquor stores.

      Worse yet, police got his fingerprints from a bottle of booze that the robber handled when grabbing it and spreading it over a price-reading device – a scanner — in order to open a cash register where one of the astonished clerks stood.

      In addition, the police charged my client with robbing one of the same liquor stores twice. Can you imagine how strong the eye-witness testimony became at that point?

      He was guilty as sin and eventually got convicted. I remember the closing argument because it was the one and only time I did not mention my name to the jury. I believe that my subconscious had taken over and refused to let me identify myself for what in criminal defense lingo was nothing more than a “slow guilty plea.”

      The defendant ended up getting 35-to-70 years at his sentence several months later. It was the stiffest sentence I ever stood up for a client.

      He was offered 20-to-40 years in return for a guilty plea and would have been out of state prison by now. But he refused to take the deal arranged by another attorney in my office.

      He will just have to dwell a little longer on how to improve on the error of his ways.

      Michael J, Esquire

      Liked by 3 people

      • wolfshades says:

        Glad to hear the results of that case. I think you’ve hit on something with your semi-subconscious thought around not mentioning your name to the jury. The soul seems to know how to protect itself from such horrifying dichotomies, I believe.

        Wonder if your client had an “d’oh!” moment once the sentence was read and he realized he could have had it easier had he agreed to the prior plea deal. Betcha his cellmates won’t let him forget (if it ever became public knowledge).

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s