Back in January, the trial attorneys at Smith Blythe got together to reflect on 2019. Over lunch, we talked about what worked well for us, what led to success in our cases, and of course, where we can improve.
We ended up talking a lot about the jury trials we had in 2019 and the lessons we picked up from those trials.
During 2018, Mariell completed seven jury trials, including a murder trial in Macomb county where her client was acquitted of a life offense with no possibility of parole. She actually tried that case twice, the first resulting in a hung jury – which we consider a defense victory! Mariell’s cases in 2019 happened to mostly be violent crimes – her favorite cases of all to try – including murder, assault with intent to murder, and multiple domestic violence cases. The major theme in many of her trials was self-defense.
Mariell found that the more she focused on her theme in every step of the trial, the more the jury focused on the self-defense defense. She started early in voir dire, opening statements, and reiterated the theme throughout her questioning of the prosecution’s witnesses.
In terms of violent crime defense, Mariell also concluded that her clients were often grossly overcharged, even if they were not completely innocent of committing any crime. This day in age, the prosecution wants to appear proactive against fighting crime and the media certainly sensationalizes the facts when serious offenses are alleged. Recently, there has also been a surge of police departments and even prosecutor’s offices using social media to advance these platforms.
Mariell found that finding jurors who were willing to have an open mind about self-defense was the most important task at hand. She focused on whether jurors could be open to the idea that the prosecution may not have it right. She found that the more conversational she could be with the jurors, the more interesting the conversations would be and the more information she could learn. At trial, it is important for any lawyer to build a relationship with the people sitting in the box.
Molly had a case in January of 2018 in Benzie County where her client was charged with first degree criminal sexual conduct – a life offense. This case was about consent, although the complainant testified she was too drunk to consent to having sex. Like Mariell, Molly found that sticking to the theme of a consent defense was critical through the entire trial – from jury selection through closing arguments. Another major theme that was important was law enforcement’s failure to investigate many aspects of the case. The investigation was short and swift, so this case revolved around reasonable doubt being created from the lack of evidence, instead of just poking holes in the evidence that did exist. The jury quickly reached a not guilty verdict and asked to speak to the prosecution after trial. The theme regarding the lack of evidence resonated with them so much that the jurors wanted to voice their concerns to the prosecution that the officer in charge should have done a better job investigating.
In July, Shannon tried a criminal sexual conduct case in Livingston County. The allegations stemmed from allegations that our client had inappropriately touched two alleged victims, including one who was a 12 year old girl. While the allegations were certainly serious, Shannon found that keeping the mood light during trial was very important. By doing so, it was clear that during jury selection the jury really bonded. Instead of focusing on how jurors felt about sex assault cases like most lawyers would do, Shannon focused her questions on other issues in the case. To help her feel less nervous, Shannon learned a tip from another lawyer that she uses to this day – she pretends she is in a bar surrounded by a group of friends discussing the case she’s about to try. Imagining the jurors in a casual environment with a coke or a beer in their hand makes it easier to lead the group to having a conversation versus a formal question and answer routine.
The client was quickly acquitted; however, it was the end of the day and there was no time to speak to jurors after the trial. Thankfully, however, two of the jurors reached out to Shannon on Facebook to tell her about their deliberations and what worked. They felt that keeping the mood light was very effective – obviously everyone (including the lawyers at Smith Blythe) do not “like” sex assault allegations when they are true. The jury also liked that Shannon was very efficient and did not waste their time with unnecessary questions. She made her points for each witness and even waived cross examination for some that were completely unimportant.
Brian had an important trial over the summer where he represented a client charged with felony firearm and felon in possession related to a shooting at an apartment complex. Video footage showed the client reaching into the trashcan close to where the shots were reported minutes after. Minutes after that, the police found a gun in the trash that they believed was freshly fired. They did not adequately test the physical evidence. Thankfully, the jury found Brian’s client not guilty.
The most important takeaways Brian brought to the office included that what the evidence does not show can be as important as what it does show. Molly found the same to be true in her trial – this will certainly be a focus we consider in each upcoming trial. The instruction for reasonable doubt even includes the “lack of evidence” that a case may bring – this will be a new focus for us to highlight in trials where it is appropriate.
Brian found that talking through the constitutional responsibilities with the jury led to a very educated panel that took their constitutional duties very seriously.
Brian’s motto from that trial, which is a great motto for us to keep in mind in future trials, was that “you can’t get a passing grade on an incomplete assignment.” Highlighting the failures by law enforcement in investigating the alleged crime was very important.
And of course, we have to share with you the biggest blooper of the year which was committed by Molly, who accidently brought two left shoes to the trial in Benzie County. After a day of trial in two left shoes, Molly had to go buy a new pair of shoes for the rest of trial….however, maybe it was the two left shoes that added luck to our client’s acquittal!
Happy New Year to all. We hope 2020 brings us as much success as 2019.