Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wins and Losses

Four hours of deliberation. Five jury notes requesting testimony read back. Three lawyers (defense attorney, second chair, and me) attempting the impossible task of deciphering whether the jury was leaning with me or with the defendant. Phone calls back and forth between the court and my cell phone requesting my presence for another note. Finally, the final phone call.

Clerk: We've got a note.
Me: Is it a verdict?
Clerk: Yes.
Me: Inaudible gasp and stomach grumble.

Despite all the trials I've done, I cannot shake the stomach grumble when I get that phone call.

The defense attorney is already in the courtroom. I walk to the prosecution's table with my co-counsel and take our seats next to the jury. The defendant is brought in and the judge emerges from chambers moments later. My thoughts drift to before the week-long trial. Before the witnesses and evidence and schedules that need to be coordinated. Before the last minute witness was found in Virginia and flown in. Before the sleepless nights and feigned composure in front of the jury. I think of one of the first lessons I learned as a trial attorney.

Don't react to the verdict, whether it's in my favor or not. This is the jury's decision. We did our best in representing the People, but it is in the hands of four men and eight women and their decision deserves respect.

Guilty means there was a measure of justice for the victim, but the defendant will now be going to state prison for a significant portion of her life for her first offense. I don't celebrate the victories because a crime just means that one person chose to act and now that choice has affected so many more lives in a negative way that it seems imprudent to revel in it.

Not guilty means the defendant leaves and avoids punishment. Even though I'm confident in her guilt, the jury may not be and that is why these people took time from their lives to serve. We asked this jury to hold us to our burden and, when they did, we failed.

The jurors amble in, six in each row. I avoid eye contact with any of them. All secrets will be revealed in moments and I have to focus on squashing that queasiness in my stomach.

Judge: Has the jury reached a verdict?
Foreperson: We have.
Judge: Will the defendant please rise. (Said like a statement, not a question). Is the verdict unanimous?
Foreperson: It is.
Clerk: In this action, the People of the State of New York vs. (omitted), on the charge of Assault in the First Degree, how do you find?

My vision is focused on a small spot on the mahogany table in front of me. There's a glass top covering it and underneath the glass it looks like something's trapped. I'm confident in the next word but can't look away from the spot.

Foreperson: Not guilty.

Three days later - Despite the consolations from co-workers and family, this will hurt for a while even though I try to detach from the emotions of these cases. I don't agree with the verdict, but if I didn't respect the choice made by the jury, a right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, why did I swear to uphold the constitution?


  1. Wow. I could only imagine the gut-wrenching feeling that was going through you when the jury came out and the verdict was read. If you don't mind me asking, how do you go back into the office after a loss and still be able to maintain your composure and integrity? What is it that keeps your passion for the law going even after a not guilty verdict?

  2. There is a scene in the movie "Singles" that perfectly captures the moments following a 'not guilty' verdict for me (a prosecutor).

    Campbell Scott gets turned down by the mayor (Tom Skerritt) for a "SuperTrain" in Seattle, and Scott slowly walks back into his office with his thumb turned down at his co-workers. And then his cubicle falls apart as he removes a book from his shelf.

    Seriously, that scene nails it.

  3. Pretty well put anonymous. Great scene.

    @Jayvon: Everyone knows you went down to get a verdict so when you come back everyone asks. You dodge a few people, tell your supervisor, close your door and avoid the phone. Rant, rage, yell, reflect quietly - do whatever you have to.

    A phone call to the victim to let them know the assailant's back on the street is the last order of business before I leave and avoid everyone's questions.

    Take a day, two days (a week filled with a few pints maybe?), and you realize the only thing you know how to do is carry on through the adversity. Move on to the next case because the victim's need good people fighting for them in their corner. As a friend said, everyone gets knocked down. Not everyone gets back up.

    How does anyone else respond to an adverse verdict?

  4. @ anonymous i gotta check the film you referred to. @ prosecutor's discretion, you're right the people do need strong ada's to fight for the victims. Idk all of the facts but it seems that u did all u could to prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt. Just the jury didn't see it that way. Guess you gotta take the good along with the bad. Well you still have my support buddy!!!

  5. The movie is great, but that scene just crystallizes the experience of a not guilty verdict for me.

    The build up, the days and months spent working up a case, the passion you feel about your case and the defendant's guilt, and then the blindside blow you feel when 12 strangers who have spent a few hours listening decide the defendant didn't do it.

    The music playing during the scene in the movie is perfect, too.

  6. I don't get not guilty verdicts. What are they again?

    Not true. I've had a couple and one thing I try to do is talk to the jurors to get their impressions of the case. Was it a case of, "He was innocent so we acquitted," or a case of, "We think he probably did it, but you didn't quite prove it." Sometimes it's a case of, "Frankly, my dear prosecutor, we just didn't care."

    As for how I deal with it, well, luckily both my NGs were on relatively minor cases (no one dead or sexually assaulted). But I hate to lose, so in both cases I took a few days to get over myself.

    And I'm lucky, I work in an office where losing means nothing, where we're encouraged to try difficult cases rather than dismiss them because we're afraid of losing.

    Even so, I do hate to lose. :)