I posted this to my LiveJournal on February 26, 2003, the night my first trial ended. People seemed to find it of interest, so I thought I'd repost it here as an essay. It could probably use a touch of editing, but it does reflect my state of mind that night.
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[ Trial information is all public record, but since none of the people involved asked to appear in my ramblings, I'll keep names out of it. ]
This was a federal civil trial, in which plaintiff, then an inmate at a state prison, sued six defendants, all correction officers. Specifically, plaintiff claimed that in 1998, the defendants called him racial slurs and then, when he wouldn't respond, beat him for an extended period of time (25 minutes in his complaint; three 5-minute sessions at trial).
If state employees are sued for conduct within their employment, they have the right to request that the Attorney General's Office represent them. Thus, we represented the six defendants, and as you might imagine, their version was rather different. Two of the defendants brought plaintiff to the building where this incident allegedly occured; they didn't go in the building at all that day. One of the defendants was struck across the face by plaintiff as he was getting ready to do a strip search; two of the other defendants had to help subdue plaintiff. Everyone was injured in the process: plaintiff had some bruises, a cut lip, that sort of thing; the one who was slapped had redness and swelling; the second had been choked by plaintiff in the struggle; and the third had a sore back from wrestling around with plaintiff on the floor. The sixth and final defendant showed up after it was all over. Once force has been used against an inmate, all the staff involved get relieved by other officers, to calm down the situation, and he was one of the relief officers.
So, in other words, three of the defendants weren't in the building at the time plaintiff was allegedly being beaten. The other three did use force against plaintiff, but only to get him back under control after he struck one of them.
Trial started Monday. Plaintiff only called one witness, himself, so I didn't get to do any cross-examination. My co-counsel, R., is an extremely good trial attorney and handled plaintiff's cross himself. (As he should have. I could have done it, but not as well, and thus it would have been very ill-advised for him not to do it.)
I did the direct examinations of three of our defendants: one of the defendants who transported plaintiff to the building but didn't enter; the one who was slapped; and the one who was choked. I flubbed one non-critical thing from inexperience (if you want the jury to hear a sentence from a document in evidence, read it yourself, even if you went over it with the witness beforehand. Especially if the copy is very difficult to read.). There were also a few things I would have liked to do better: connect up answers from different parts of the examination to make a point more clearly, use silence to emphasize points, that sort of stuff. Mostly it went pretty smoothly, in that I spoke at an appropriate volume and speed (I tend to talk really fast in Real Life), got out the information I wanted, and didn't freeze, forget an exhibit, or have a witness blurt out something disastrous. I do need to learn to object more: I'm really not that confrontational a person, which in most settings is fine, but proper advocacy on behalf of your clients sometimes requires it. I feel that the things I didn't object to didn't really hurt our case, since they were mostly serving to bore the jury, but I could have done a bit more to move things along and keep our witnesses from feeling so harassed. Anyway, I felt I'd done a reasonable professional job conducting the directs of my witnesses.
However, yesterday people kept asking me how it went, meaning was it going well substantively for us, and I had to tell them that I had no idea. I spent quite a bit of time with all of these guys, getting to know them and understand their recollection of events. I sympathized with them, I held their hand when they were nervous, I rehearsed their direct examinations over and over in my head: I did so much as their advocate, being on their side and seeing things from their point of view, that I could no longer see them as a stranger would. I knew them and I liked them, and I couldn't keep that on one half of my brain and use the other half for objectivity. I think overall it's more important to understand and sympathize with your witnesses, since that does come through to the jury; but I would be a better lawyer if I could maintain some objectivity, as well, to help me plan trial strategy.
Also, I had no idea how things went because I was exhausted. I didn't fully realize how draining trial is. Every moment, even when I wasn't doing anything, I could feel that my heart rate was up and that my palms were sweaty and my stomach was tight. I felt the tension at the time, but I didn't realize how tiring it was just to be on trial: the extreme focus you devote to every word takes a lot of energy. By the time I got back to the office each day, I really felt like the walking dead.
The final reason is quite simple: it is extremely hard to read a jury. I'm not sure I should even try, since I just tie myself up in knots even further. Juries are one of the great black boxes of American life, and that's all there is to it.
Today, our third and final day, we called our last two witnesses (a nurse and the sixth defendant), R. did a great closing, and the case went to the jury at 1:50. And then we started waiting.
The jury had to interrupt their deliberations several times: they sent two notes to the court, asking about exhibits, and then while we were dealing with the second note, a juror became extremely ill and had to be excused, and then the judge brought them back in to give an additional charge: the exhibit questioned by the second note was incomplete, and he charged them that they could, if they wanted, draw the inference that the missing page(s) would have been unfavorable to the defendant who wrote the exhibit.
I'd started out the deliberations pretty calm and collected: I thought we were in decent shape after closings, and I'd brought work and was able to focus on that. Between the additional charge and the time the jury was taking, however, I was convinced we were going to lose. I couldn't decide if I wanted to cry, scream, or just collapse in a little puddle.
The jury informed the court that it had a verdict a little before 5:00. In the few minutes that we waited for the jury to come in and give their verdict—well, not to be gross, but I think I sweated all the water I'd had that day out through my palms. (I have never had sweaty hands before. I didn't know that was a way I reacted to stress before this.) I couldn't even look at them when they came in. Just to have something to do with my hands, I took notes on the verdict—not that I was likely to forget it. I remember seeing my pen form the letter "N" each time the jury foreperson said that our defendants had not used excessive force against plaintiff, but the only emotion I can remember is a kind of stunned gratitude. Some of the defendants kidded me afterwards that I looked worse than the most nervous of the defendants. I didn't even feel happy for about half an hour. I just couldn't believe it. I really thought we would lose my first trial and let down these guys who we'd spent so much time with and who were so worried about the whole thing. All I could think to say during that time was that maybe I'm not cut out for this stuff after all, because I don't know if my nerves can take this very often.
When it finally sunk it and I recovered from the stress, I was very happy—especially at seeing all of our clients so happy. They were pleased with our work, too, which was really nice to hear. (They also didn't know it was my first trial until I told them after the closing arguments, looking for feedback, which in itself was kind of a compliment.)
(Speaking of feedback, we couldn't talk to any of the jurors today, but in a week or so, we're free to. I intend to try and call some of them and see if they're willing to share any comments with me—about my performance, their thoughts on the case, anything. I have no idea how well that will work, especially after time passes, but we'll see.)
Anyway, this was a really great learning experience for me—by which I mean that it had a great outcome and I learned a lot in the process. Mostly, I'm just more glad than I can say that we won the case for our clients. And on that note, I think I've decompressed enough to be able to sleep.
Copyright February 26, 2003 by Kate Nepveu.