It’s day 7 of the trial. It feels like day 70, this case is moving too slowly. But today is special because the government is going to rest its case against my client. He’s charged with more than a half dozen felonies, a couple of which are pretty serious. He’ll do decades in prison if he’s convicted of everything. He’s been in jail for far too long. He can’t make bail, he fired his last attorney and hired me. I got the case to trial, from start to finish, in six months flat. No matter what happens next, I’m proud of that, especially during this pandemic.
I only had time to make a quick protein shake before I had to scoot out the door and get to court this morning. I rolled into the courtroom at the stroke of 9 o’clock. I’m cutting it pretty close there, I think to myself. Tomorrow I need to get out the door 5 minutes earlier to be safe.
It takes me a few minutes to get organized. I’ve got my laptop, my case files, my trial notebook, my court rules, my evidence handbook, and some other items I’ve got to get set up just how I like. I have to keep my mask on at all times- it’s hot and oppressive. My voice echoes back into my ears. It’s a nightmare for a profession whose stock-in-trade is public speaking. My client wants to know what’s going on too, but I don’t have time to brief him on everything- we’re doing more of the same today, until we aren’t. The jail staff brought him into court and uncuffed him. He’s wearing the clothing I bought for him the Friday before trial started. It fits him pretty well actually, he looks presentable. Now, what’s on the agenda for today? No time to think, out comes the judge and all of a sudden the day has begun.
The prosecutor has a bunch of calls placed from inside the jail they want to use against my client. I argue everything I can to keep them out of evidence – relevance, hearsay, authentication, cumulation, unfair prejudice– all to no effect, the judge lets them all come in. He says they’re not “inflammatory.” Has he listened to these? They are terrible for my case. The jury hears the evidence and its critical testimony against my client, from his own lips. I feel like I’m caught in a riptide, being pulled in one direction against my will. But, you have to go with where the evidence leads. So I try to relax, deal with it, and move on to the next problem.
The jury sits in the room next door. Because of the pandemic, space is at premium since people have to be six feet apart all the time. How am I supposed to have a quiet chat with my client in the presence of judge and jury and stay six feet apart? It’s impossible. But I’ve got to take the risk of getting sick, I can’t allow my client to stew in jail forever. So we mask up (or double mask) and I do the best I can to keep distance.
Lunchtime is here and I need to discuss some things with my client. Is he going to testify? I meet with him in a holding cell with a steel toilet anchored to the wall, it’s the only private area available. It’s loud and smells. My mask doesn’t help with the smell – I hope it’s working at least for the virus. We talk tactics in this stark bathroom and I explain what’s happening to my client. It looks like he gets it, and he follows my advice. Communicating the message you mean in a simple way is a skill I’ve practiced for years, but everyone is different, and so is every approach. Then try to communicate legal concepts like burden of proof, evidence, and it starts to get harder.
Jail staff is antsy to get out of the courthouse, and I need to grab a taco from down the street in the 25 minutes I have available. I bring my laptop because I need to listen to some of these calls while I eat. There’s never enough time to do everything I want to do.
Back in court, going through security again. They run my keys and wallet through the
x-ray machine twice for some reason, and then paw through everything just to be sure I’m not a security threat, even though they’ve seen me here every day for almost two weeks. I’m annoyed and I realize it’s showing. I’m annoyed because security is slowly draining my time, and I worry that I won’t be prepared enough to fight for my client effectively. But then I close my eyes and try to remember that all the preparation has already been done. I smile at security and wait patiently for them to finish. Once you’re in trial, that’s the fun part. At least, there are fun parts.
Today wasn’t that fun though. The jury didn’t look too pleased to hear my client on tape saying some unpleasant things for all to hear. I really tried to keep those calls out, I even made a motion to dismiss the case based on those damn calls being illegally recorded. Ah well, I tell myself, at least I’ve got some good appeal issues if it goes that far. I hope it won’t.
There’s more to be done on this case; there’s going to be a big closing argument soon. Time is short when you’re in the middle of a trial. There’s not enough time to catch up if you aren’t already prepared; on the other hand, there’s no time to dwell in the past either. A good day was a good day and bad day was a bad day. When it’s over, it’s over. It’s always forward to the next challenge. And I’ll be ready to do battle again tomorrow.
P.S. After three more tough days on the trial trail, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the most serious charge, the one my entire defense hinged on. The client was saved ten years of his life. I thought about the last ten years of my own life, and I thought about how long that would have been to sit in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. I could feel the raw waves of pent up anxiety and stress sliding off of my client as the verdict was announced, like an avalanche coming down the face of a mountain. After, he just held his head in his hands as the jurors sat in silence. His father watched his son receive the decision from the gallery with tears in his eyes. Something huge had just happened and we all felt it.