The Full Story
Sorry for the gap in posting. I spent that time preparing, and then engaging in, a multi-week trial. Once arguments ended, the jury was in deliberations for almost a week. Once all was said and done, I had catching up to do in the office. So it’s been a busy month here.
I’m not going to go in significant detail on the trial itself. But I do want to talk about one thing that happens in almost every trial.
In the course of trial witnesses take the stand in order to share their side of the story. Sometimes that testimony isn’t admissible. There are plenty of subjects that are inadmissible, like a witness testifying to things that have nothing to do with the charges themselves, or prior bad acts of a witness, or speculative testimony, or scientific testimony that hasn’t properly been authenticated. When these subjects are broached, an attorney requests what’s called a sidebar.
A sidebar is a discussion and ruling about that evidence outside the presence of the jury. For some courts it’s literally at the side of the judge’s bench, where the judge and the attorneys stand and confer. In other courts the entire jury leaves the room so the lawyers can talk. Either way the jury doesn’t hear the potential testimony until after the judge deems that it’s admissible.
I’ve always thought that jurors must find it frustrating to know that there is additional information about the case that they are not allowed to hear. To them it would seem like they’re only getting a snapshot of the full story.
Juries I’ve talked to after trials admit they don’t like sidebars but they understand that it’s part of the process in order to ensure a fair trial. They’re curious, but they understand. Or they don’t understand, but that’s how it works! Either way, as the attorney I’m fortunate I’m able to deal with the full information.
Besides juries and attorneys, defense attorneys and prosecutors have much different views when it comes to the full story. When a prosecutor receives a police report, charges can be filed. A police report is written when law enforcement learns of a potential crime, e.g. DUI, domestic violence, etc. This means that a prosecutor’s introduction to my client is the police officer’s statement that my client committed a crime. Ultimately, that means prosecutors only see a snapshot of a person, and it’s a picture that puts that person in the worst possible light. And that doesn’t really change either. After someone is charged, the prosecutor doesn’t get to go talk to them, find out their life story, maybe dig deeper into the allegations. Once charges are filed it’s the defense attorney’s role to paint the whole picture. A prosecutor talking to a defendant about the allegations would be quite unethical.
But that’s what I do. I get the full story. Of course that includes getting the full story on what transpired around the allegations. Often there are incredible relevant things that law enforcement did not know about or didn’t write down in their report that changes the entire tenor of the case.
But I also get to learn more about my client as a person. I get to learn about my client’s history that led up to the allegations. Sometimes that means information about the relationship between my client and complaining witness, or their mental or physical health problems, or something else. I also get to get updates, like treatment programs they’ve entered or personal accomplishments they’ve made. Often my clients make substantial life accomplishments while charges are pending.
Part of the role of the prosecutor’s office is to keep defendant at arm’s length. As I said it’s a complete ethics violation to talk to a defendant after they’ve obtained counsel, or before they’ve had the opportunity to do so. But that flipside is that they only get to see a person in the worst possible light.
In my work I don’t have the luxury, or desire, to keep people at arm’s length. I need to know the full story so I can better represent them. Sometimes I learn things that, strategically, I share with the other side. And a great many things I’m told remain completely confidential. But either way, my job is sifting through that story, getting to know someone, so I can give the best representation possible. In the course of that I get to know my clients and I’ll say they are some fascinating people. They may have made a mistake but I appreciate the varied life experiences so many of these people have had. And often enough I get to help them out of a jam.
All this to say, sometimes I spend a month in trial and have to work overtime to catch up. But for all that, I really like my job.