The defense oftentimes wants to muddy the waters and misdirect or sway the jury away from a person’s cause with information that is irrelevant or unfairly prejudicial. Wrongful death cases are no exception and remarriage is one of those topics. Fortunately, Indiana court’s have joined the majority of jurisdictions which have prohibited such tactics by the defense as irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial.
The general rule in Indiana is that in a wrongful death action a right of action or an amount of recovery is not affected by the fact that the surviving spouse has remarried or contemplates remarriage. Wabash R. Co. v. Gretzinger (1914), 182 Ind. 155, 104 N.E. 69; Consolidated Stone Co. v. Morgan (1903), 160 Ind. 241, 66 N.E. 696; Gilmer v. Carney, 608 N.E.2d 709 (Ind. Ct. App. 1993); City of Bloomington v. Holt (1977) 172 Ind. App. 650, 711, 361 N.E.2d 1211(held motion in limine prohibiting mention of the fact, probability or possibility of remarriage of the plaintiff including with whom he is residing was proper). This restriction applies and restricts proof that a spouse is living with another person and applies regardless of gender. City of Bloomington v. Holt, supra.
The enactment of IC 34-4-36-1,2 concerning payments from collateral sources should not be read or interpreted as changing Indiana’s traditional common law view. The collateral source statute clearly addresses only evidence of monetary payments. Gilmer v. Carney, supra. Since statutes in derogation of the common law are to be strictly construed and should not be extended beyond their express terms or what they unmistakably imply, Indianapolis Power Light v. Brad Snodgrass, Inc. (1991) Ind., 578 N.E.2d 669, IC 34-4-36-2 should not be extended to embrace nonmonetary items such as remarriage. Id.
So be ready for this issue and address it in your pretrial motion in limine so that the defense is prohibited from throwing a skunk into the jury box.
I was listening to a new album by cousin Peter Neff that he created in collaboration with his co-composer Mauricio Yazigi titled Spanish Guitars. The sound and rhythm is mesmerizing. It reminded me that a good cross-examination or closing argument has its own rhythm and melody. The pace and delivery both lulls and controls the defenses of the witness As the examination draws him closer to the truth.
Want to understand this power? Read out loud classic dialogues such as Plato’s the Republic. The Republic is a Socratic dialogue, written by Plato around 380 BC, concerning the definition of justice, the order and character of the just city-state and the just man. You will notice how the pace and melody of the words propels the examination and the rhetorical power of the questions posed.
Remember that cross examination is simply a means of speaking the truth to the jury through a series of well planned rhetorical questions that logically lead to your ultimate point. These examinations have a rhythm which you can use to your advantage to emphasize the themes of your case. See F. Lee Bailey’s cross examination of Detective Mark Furhman which helped undermine the State of California’s case by suggesting Furman was a dishonest racist who planted blood as evidence against O.J. Simpson.
Likewise a good closing has a rhythm and melody which melds with each point you must make to the jury. Check out the clip of “True Believer”, San Francisco attorney Tony Serra, as he gives a spellbinding closing argument for his client, Rick Tabish charged with murder.
Find your pace and use it to your advantage. The modulation of the pace, volume and pitch of your voice is no different than a musical instrument. It conveys the mood and emphasis of you point. Make sure there is both a rhyme and a reason supporting your next presentation.
If you are the plaintiff or the state prosecutor in a criminal case, you have the advantage of going last. However, remember that the scope of rebuttal is determined by the issues addressed in the closing argument of opposing counsel. When I was a law clerk right out of school, I saw team of attorneys for plaintiff decide that they would split the closing argument with one of them to discuss liability in the first half of their argument and the second attorney would address the issue of damages in rebuttal.
The defense, realizing a tactical mistake made by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, chose to limit their argument to liability only and moved in limine to prevent the plaintiff’s attorney from arguing damages in rebuttal. The jury retired, confused as to whether they were supposed to decide only liability or both damages and liability. Ironically, at the end of the day, failure to argue damages did not seem to matter much. In that case the jury returned a record multimillion dollar verdict.
Don’t make this mistake. You might not be as lucky. See Indiana Jury Rule 27. This Rule provides:
When the evidence is concluded, the parties may, by agreement in open court, submit the case without argument to the jury.
If the parties argue the case to the jury, the party with the burden of going forward shall open and close the argument. The party which opens the argument must disclose in the opening all the points relied on in the case. If, in the closing, the party which closes refers to any new point or fact not disclosed in the opening, the adverse party has the right to reply to the new point or fact. The adverse party’s reply then closes the argument in the case.
If the party with the burden of going forward declines to open the argument, the adverse party may then argue its case. In criminal cases, if the defense declines to argue its case after the prosecution has made opening argument, then that shall be the only argument allowed in the case.
In criminal cases, the party with the burden of going forward is the prosecution. In civil cases, the party with the burden of going forward is the plaintiff.
If you know there are points the defense must cover, I would recommend saving some of your best zingers, one-liners or analogies for rebuttal. Your opponent will be silenced, and your statements will not be directly challenged.
There is nothing more powerful in terms of capturing someone’s attention and imbedding your message in their brain than a good one-liner; or, as I like to call them, a “zinger”. A “zinger” is described as, “a surprising or unusually pointed or telling remark.”
In today’s modern, fast-paced world, speechwriters and politicians often work on developing that one biting quip or sound bite which will disarm an opponent and grab an audience’s favor. Such comments often seem unscripted even though they were planned out well in advance. Attorneys can use “zingers” as a rhetorical device during cross-examination or in closing argument to drive a point home. “Zingers” are especially effective in rebutting your opponent’s argument. Your source material is everywhere. I urge you to look to quote books, comedians and popular culture for such material. There is even a source entitled “The Complete Book of Zingers“.
A recent book, The Notes, posthumously published on behalf of President Ronald Reagan, is a collection of quotes and anecdotes that Reagan gathered over his long career as a speaker and politician. He made a concerted effort throughout his life to look for and collect such quotes on index cards.
President Reagan was the master of the one-liner. Who can forget Reagan’s “There you go again” quip he used to boomerang criticism of his position back at his opponent, President Jimmy Carter during their presidential debate in 1980. See:
Books containing anthologies of jokes are another source of such material. The master of the “zinger” is Samuel Clemens, more famously remembered as Mark Twain. In dealing with the topic of truthfulness and the use of statistics to bolster a weak argument, Twain observed:
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Another way of putting it according to Twain was:
“Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”
Such a statement can quickly and effectively eviscerate an opponent and swings the audience or jury in one’s favor. Cultivate your inner one-liners; you won’t be disappointed and you may just “zing” your opponent the next time you are in court.
If you are on the defense, I would point out that after you sit down you will not be allowed to speak any further and cannot address the issues raised in rebuttal. You and your client have to trust the jury will scrutinize the arguments of the plaintiff the same way as the arguments of the defense.
It is important to stick with the argument that you’ve planned out and then aggressively and positively put forward your case. You don’t want to waste too much time responding to the other side’s argument to the detriment of their own. You want to help the jurors reach their own conclusions about the case through the use of rhetorical questions. Give the jury some credit and let them answer the questions you pose. If your rhetorical questions are properly framed, the answer will be obvious.
1. Addressing Your Problems Before the Other Side Does
Address your own problems before the other side goes on the attack. This allows you the advantage primacy as the jury will hear your arguments first as they mentally work their way through your case. Handle the questions likely to be raised by the defense in a forthright and confident manner. Put forth your best analysis of the evidence in favor of your client.
2. Credibility and Sincerity is Your Greatest Weapon
State your position with conviction and sincerity. If you exude sincerity, you will gain the trust of the jurors in your analysis of the case. To succeed, your analysis must be an honest one that does not dodge the difficult questions. If you lose your credibility, you lose your ability to persuade.
3. Address Any Weak Points in Your Theory
You need to anticipate attacks and be ready to address them in a calm and confident fashion so the jury understands that the supposed problems are nothing. You should have laid the groundwork for this in your voir dire of the jury, as well as in your opening statement and the evidence presented.
Today my blog will have 50,000 views for the over 107 posts I have authored on a number of topics that confronts today’s trial advocate. My most read topic is about how to handle a deposition errata sheet. I find that quite surprising. A young attorney from New York called to thank me for the post and followed up with a thank you card. I still have that card on my desk to remind me why I take the time to blog.
It is nice to give back to the profession and job I love. Back in law school, I knew my goal was to become the best trial attorney and advocate possible. I have worked on cases involving civil rights, personal injury, product liability, premises liability, defamation, false arrest, medical malpractice, murder, rape, pollution, RICO, wrongful death, mail fraud, gambling, counterfeiting, construction, drug trafficking, pollution, real estate, contract disputes and even a death penalty case. A few things I take away from all of this is over the last three decades of practice:
- Talent is over rated and hard work is under valued. An average attorney can out work and out hustle a smarter attorney. Put the time in to do the job right. Always assume your opponent is smarter than you so as too not overlook any key details.
- If you get into a new or difficult case don’t be afraid to,ask for help from a more experienced colleague. Your client deserves that much. In fact, join a trial attorney association and participate in it. Seek out mentors… They will help you grow as a professional.
- Re beer your reputation and integrity are the most important asset you or your client have, never take a good case and try to make it a great case or you will be left with bad case.
- Always continue to learn and hone your skills as a trial attorney. Otherwise, you will be left behind.
- Strive for excellence everyday, but accept the fact that you are only human and will make mistakes and fail from time to time. Embrace your mistakes as your best teachers. The worst mistakes we make are those we repeat. The first sign of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results.
- Take time to enjoy your life outside of the law. You need balance. While the law is a jealous mistress, it does mean your spouse should be a widow and your children orphans.
- The judge may not always be right, but the judge is always “the judge”. Respect the office even if you don’t respect the man who holds the position.
- That being said never be afraid to hold firm in your position for a client. Courage and fortitude are required. Politely make your record as needed and move on to the next topic. Often times a judge will reverse himself, if you make an offer to prove and stand firm.
- Finally, remember it costs you nothing to be a gentleman. Treat everyone with respect you encounter and it will be returned tenfold.
As far as I am concerned, when it comes to your closing argument, you want to begin strong and end strong. You are the director, producer and central author of the closing argument. Syd Field is the author of a number of books on screenwriting. His principles have equal application to the formulation of a closing argument. In his book, Screenplay: Foundations of Screenwriting he talks about how important the first 10 minutes (about 10 pages) of your script are. Screeners of scripts will typically look at the first 10 pages of the screenplay and if they don’t like it, they quit reading and toss the script to the trash pile.
Jurors are not much different. If you haven’t caught their attention in the first few minutes of closing argument, they are probably going to start daydreaming about what they will do once they’re out of the trial. Instead of spending a bunch of time at the beginning of closing thanking jurors or their service, I would recommend grabbing their attention with a snappy introduction while you have their undivided attention. Don’t waste this opportunity with boilerplate pleasantries and thanking the jury for their service. This comes across as flattery and will seem insincere. You are better off giving your thanks in the middle of your closing where it will be seen as heartfelt and less forced. Make sure you end strong as well so you can take advantage of the effects of primacy and recency. You are giving the jury needed inspiration as they retire to the jury room to deliberate.
At the end of his closing arguments before he sat down, renowned trial attorney, Gerry Spence, used the following analogy to drive home the point that his client’s fate was in the hands of the jury :
“I’m going to tell you a simple story, about a wise old man and a smart aleck young boy who wanted to show up the wise old man for a fool. The boy captured [a] little bird. He had the idea he would go to the wise old man with the bird in his hand and say, ‘What have I got in my hand?’ And the old man would say, ‘Well, you have a bird, my son.’ And he would say, ’Wise old man, is the bird alive or is it dead?’ The old man knew if he said,’It is dead,’ the little boy would open his hand and the bird would fly away. If he said, “It is alive,” the boy would take the bird in his hand and crunch the life out of it and then open his hand and say, ’See, it is dead.’ So the boy went up to the wise old man and he said, ’Wise old man, what do I have in my hand?’ The old man said, ’Why, it is a bird.’ He said, ’Wise old man, is it alive or is it dead?’ And the wise old man said, ’The bird is in your hands, my son.’”
So give the jury a memorable closing argument by starting and ending strong.
Exactly how do you want to format your questions? There are several schools of thought on this matter. I know successful attorneys that literally script out every question and every answer to the question. In this way, the attorney can visualize exactly what will take place in the courtroom. Such a format also allows someone else, such as a paralegal or another attorney, to go through the outline with the witness even if you were not available to prepare them. The downside of such an outline is that usually ends up being extremely long like a deposition transcript. Also, when you work through the testimony in that fashion you can become a little too pat and maybe even a little stale, reversed and staged.
I will typically prepare an outline starting with the witness’s qualifications and background and then work through the evidence I wish to get from the witness. Instead of questions, like the game show Jeopardy I write out only the answers. Instead of 80 page outlines, my outlines typically run 5 to 12 pages. The advantage of such a system is that you can check your outline quickly. You focus on the answer you need to get instead of the questions. I form the questions on the fly as I come to each new fact I must elicit from the witness. Your questions come across more naturally and do not seem staged or scripted since they are slightly different each time. This keeps your witness alert as well.
Initially, this will take a little extra effort. However, you will be rewarded by developing this skill of being able to formulate questions on the spot. If an objection is sustained to a question you ask, instead of staring blankly at your outline, you will rapidly formulate a new question which will hopefully obviate the objection raised.
On the top of each witness outline, I like to write the elements of my claim that the witness will help support and any evidentiary foundations that might be required of the witness and legal authority supporting the same. Another way of accomplishing the same end is to place the foundational prerequisites on a Post-it and affixed to the back of the exhibit.
You want to look organized and prepared for the jury. Your mastery of your own exhibits will go a long way in impressing the jury of your command of the case and your competency and professionalism. Need a system to keep all your witnesses and exhibits organized? Sometimes the best system is the simplest one.
I use a separate folder for each witness and each exhibit. I make sure all the folder tabs line up in a single row for the witnesses and label each witness folder with their last name, first name or, if it’s a record keeper, I use the name of the organization. By using a single row of tabs you can quickly thumb through the files without having to scan side to side. I then alphabetize the folders from A to Z.
In each witness folder, I keep a copy of the witness’s outline and a copy of any exhibits needed for the witness. This way if I need to run out and meet with a witness, I just pull their folder and run. Because of my preparation, I know I have everything in hand I need to deal with that witness.
Each exhibit is also kept in a separate tabbed folder or tabbed binder and is sequentially pre-numbered or pre-marked with a letter. The folders or tabs are then sequentially ordered just as was done with the witnesses.
I also prepare two lists, one for witnesses and one for exhibits. Witnesses are listed alphabetically with the number or letter for each exhibit to be shown to that witness listed in the adjacent column.
I create a second list with exhibits sequentially listed and all witnesses crossed reference for each exhibit. On this list I also have columns to note if an exhibit was tendered into evidence and whether it was admitted or excluded. This way you or your assistant can know exactly which exhibits need to be pulled, shown to and covered with each witness. You also can track if you need to make an offer of proof for exhibits excluded.
I outline each element of proof for my claim(s) and list the witness and exhibit which supports each separate element of the claim(s). This way you can easily respond to a motion for a directed verdict by outlining the proof which was entered through the testimony of specific witnesses and the exhibits on your shorthand list of proof.
I have successfully used this system for trials involving dozens of witnesses and hundreds of exhibits. It is simple and it works. It also keeps your table organized and uncluttered which conveys to the jury you know what you are doing.
On direct examination Indiana Rule of Evidence 611 requires you to use non-leading questions to elicit information from a witness. Like a good journalist you must uncover the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Incorporating these words into your questions will avoid leading the witness and prevent objections concerning the form of your question.
Like a good journalist covering a story, jurors are going to want to know the who, what, where, when, why and how of the witness’s story. As the writer Rudyard Kipling so aptly put it:
I kept six honest serving men.
They taught me all I knew.
Their names were what and why and when
and how and where and who.
Make sure to take advantage of primacy and how you structure your examination so that the most telling points of the witness’s testimony will stay with the jury. To formulate your questions in a non-leading fashion, make sure to use these common terms.
Questions typically have to be asked in a non-leading fashion. That being said, there’s nothing to prohibit you from asking topically leading questions each time you introduce the jury to a new topic. Just like the journalist, you can use transitions to act as headlines for what is coming in your examination. For example, you could introduce a topic by stating: “I would like to talk with you about the day of the accident. Would you tell the jury how your day started on June 15, 2012?” You can also build your examination on testimony that has already been provided the witness. So if the witness provided you with testimony on a topic, you can link your next question to the information already provided. The witness tells you that they were in shock after the collision, you can follow-up with a question such as, “You said you were in shock after the collision, how did that affect your ability to communicate with those around you?”
The use of non-leading questions makes the witness the focus of the jury’s attention and allows for a more narrative and natural delivery of information to the jury. This enhances the witness’s connection with the jury and their credibility.
A theme acts as the unifying thread of your case. It is a thing that motivates the jurors to take action. Your theme needs to be integrated into your jury void dire, opening statement, direct and cross-examination, closing argument and jury instructions.
There are number of potential themes. Watch movies and see how things are developed and see what are the best and emotive ones. I have a book that has nothing but quotes from various movies which I try to interject into my closings to highlight the theme and make them more interesting and compelling. For example, a closing argument may dealt with the themes “profits over safety” and “accepting responsibility“. Here is an introduction from one of my closing arguments:
This is an important case. It’s important for a lot of reasons – as I said at the beginning of this trial, it’s a case about accepting responsibility and in this case Mr. Smith did not accept responsibility. Mr. Smith ignored facts. Mr. Smith ignored laws. Mr. Smith was concerned about one thing and one thing only and that was himself. One of the things that I discussed with you at the very start of voir dire was this idea that we do not allow profits to take priority over safety. There are a lot of good reasons why we have our safety laws, but as I discussed, you have to have laws and you have to make people accept responsibility for the harms and the losses that they have caused, because if you fail to do that there’s absolutely no incentive for someone to be responsible.
Below is a short list of some themes:
a. Safety – We do not allow profits to take priority over safety.
b. Keeping Promises – A man’s word is bond.
c. Preciousness of Life – As Will Munny put it in the western Unforgiven, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” That is what happened here.
d. David & Goliath – Everyone loves to see the little guy prevail over the big bully whether it be the government or a large corporation.
e. Theft of Innocence – When a child is injured or emotional traumatized by an event or act, their life is never the same and the joy of childhood is ripped away.
f. Right vs. Wrong – You may be able to paint the case in simple terms which we are all taught as children; you do what is right because that is your duty.
g. Failure to Accept Reality – Don’t Confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.
h. Greed/Selfishness – Such things often lead people to take short cuts and ignore their responsibilities to others.
i. Struggling to Overcome Impossible Odds/Courage– Everyone cheers for a person who bravely soldiers on against difficult circumstances. Perhaps your client was seriously injured and has struggled to regain some semblance of his life. His efforts are heroic and worthy of the jury’s admiration.
Themes in cases are virtually endless and only confined by your imagination. All great literature, including the bible, strike various themes that describe why we and what we should do. Tap into these themes and use them to unify your opening statement and closing argument.
Find those descriptive words and themes that best etch a picture in the jury’s mind about which your case is all about. Return to the themes raised in your opening statement and hammer them home in your examinations and closing. You may do this with topically leading questions such as, “I want to talk to you about the day where everything changed for Mary, do you understand?” Or it might take the form of, “I want you to tell the jury, about how this incident changed your life,” and then delve into the topic as if the witness were your client. Whatever powerful words you’ve created to draw the jury into your client’s story should be used to tie the evidence together for them with your questioning.
Hammer home your themes on cross-examination through the use of rhetorical questions and deductive logic.