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Limiting the Damage

So you lose an evidentiary argument and the court allows some potentially prejudicial evidence to be presented for some narrow purpose such as bias, impeachment or to show intent, similar plan, motive or scheme.  So what should you do?  

Indiana follows “the rule of multiple admissibility” endorsed by the evidence treatises of both Whitmore and McCormick. Under this rule, evidence that is admissible for one purpose is admissible, even though it might be excluded from consideration by the jury if it was offered for another improper purpose.  The opponent of the evidence is protected, not by exclusion of the evidence, but instead by the use of a limiting instruction. Indiana Evidence Rule 105 provides:

 “If the court admits evidence that is admissible against a party or for a purpose—but not against another party or for another purpose—the court, on timely request, must restrict the evidence to its proper scope and instruct the jury accordingly.”

The party seeking to limit the evidence has the duty to request the instruction. Small v. State, 736 N.E.2d 742, 746 (Ind. 2000) (observing “a trial court has no affirmative duty to admonish a jury sua sponte as to such evidentiary matters”).  As a result you should ask the court to specifically define the area of use and address inappropriate inferences or uses which are prohibited.  Indiana Pattern Instruction No. 527 Evidence Admitted for a Limited Purposes states:

During the trial, I instructed you to consider certain evidence only for specific, limited purposes. You must consider that evidence only for those limited purposes.

Evidence relevant for some legitimate purpose,  can only be excluded if it violates the precepts of Indiana Rule of Evidence 403.  Under this rule, the danger of unfair prejudice has to substantially outweigh the evidence’s probative value in order to exclude it, thereby tipping the scales in favor of admissibility.

Keep these thoughts in mind the next time you need to limit the damage…

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A Recipe for an Effective Closing Argument

20120115-144530.jpgBelow is a summary of some thoughts dealing with closing arguments which I would like to share.  Like a good meal, a closing argument is something which requires careful preparation and a judicious mix of ingredients in the appropriate quantities.   Below is my recipe for an effective closing argument.

Goals

            While it may seem intuitively obvious, the central goal of any closing argument is to prevail on behalf of your client. Any other objective is secondary. This is your last opportunity to speak with the jury and you don’t want to waste it. Below are some thoughts concerning how to best compile the central goal on behalf of your client.

Strong Opening Grab their Attention

As far as I am concerned, 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 closing argument. In his book, Screenplay: Foundations of Screenwriting he talks about how important the first 10 minutes (approximately 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.

Themes

Themes act as a unifying thread of your case. It is a thing that motivates the jurors to take action. There are number of potential themes.  Watch movies and see how things are developed and the best ones. In fact, I have a book that contains nothing but quotes from various movies which I tried to interject in my closings to make them more interesting and compelling. Below is an example of a closing argument that I gave which dealt with the themes “profits over safety” and “accepting responsibility”.  This is the same case discussed earlier in my materials on direct and cross examination.  Here is the introduction:

This is an important case.  It’s important for a lot of reasons – most importantly, as I said at the beginning of this trial, it’s a case about accepting responsibility and in this case Mr. King did not accept responsibility.  Mr. King ignored facts.  Mr. King ignored laws.  Mr. King 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 common themes:

Safety –  We do not allow profits to take priority over safety.

Keeping Promises – A man’s word is bond.

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.

David & Goliath [Right v. Might]  –  Everyone loves to see the little guy prevail over the big bully whether it be the government or a large corporation.

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.

 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.

Failure to Accept Reality –  Don’t Confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.

Greed/Selfishness –  Such things often lead people to take short cuts and ignore their responsibilities to others.

Struggling to Overcome Impossible Odds –  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 argument.

Keeping Your Promises

As you move through your closing, it is important to link back to the themes and promises you made in your opening statement to show that you have fulfilled the obligations assumed in your opening statement. That is one of the reasons why you don’t want to promise anything in your opening statement that you can’t deliver on during the course of the trial.

Likewise, if your opponent has made promises and failed to fulfill them, you want to be able to point this out to the jury.  That’s why you always want to keep good notes of your opponent’s opening and in some instances you may even want the court reporter to partially transcribe the opening to drive the point home so that it can be quoted verbatim from the official transcript of the court.

Provide a Clear Request for Action

At the end of your closing argument, you want to clearly request the jury to take particular action on behalf of your client. This request for action can be addressed as you move through your closing. However, I always have a strong ending in my closing requesting action on the part of the jury.  Closing argument is similar to a pregame speech provided by a coach to his/her players. You want to motivate the jurors to take the action desired on behalf of the client.

If you can’t clearly request action on behalf of your client, how is the jury supposed to do so?  Here, is an example of such a call to action:

Our client would rather have his life back than a $1,200,000 verdict.  I suggest to you this is a seven-figure case.  I’ll leave it to your discretion to go through and look at these damages and analyze the jury instructions.  This case has been a heavy burden on our client.  It’s been a heavy burden on the attorneys to work it up, as you’ve probably seen these last four days.  But today we sit down and the job becomes yours.  And we appreciate your time and your attention to the case and know that you’ll do justice for him.

How Can I Help You?

I remember seeing Kent Rowe Sr. of South Bend, Indiana give a fairly dramatic introduction to defense closing argument in a serious personal injury case.  He looked at the jury and  asked:  “How can I help you?”  He stood there a moment, paused, and once he had the eyes of all of the jurors he moved forward and did just that… helped the jurors.  He answered questions about how they go about their job in looking through the evidence and applying the facts to the Court’s instructions.  He showed them how to handle the form of verdicts.  He posed and answered questions that were likely on the jury’s mind concerning the issues in the case.  By opening in such a fashion he crawled into the jury box and truly helped them to fulfill their duty to the justice system.

That is what we are called to do every time we deliver a closing argument… Help the Jury   reach the outcome we desire for our client.

The Problem of Juror Bias

“A jury verdict is the quotient of the prejudices of twelve people.” Kenneth Grubb, Attorney

Anything I missed?   Juror Bias is a difficult problem that must be ferreted out by the trial attorney in almost every trial. Quite honestly, this can not be effectively done without the cooperation of the jury. I will often close my voir dire with a question such as this:

I have limited time to ask you questions. I learned long ago that I need your help to do the best job I can for my client. I may not have been smart enough to ask something which would have an impact, even a little on you coming into this with an open mind. Is there anything you would want me to know about your background that you are aware of that if you were in my client’s position here?

Is there anything you would want me to know about your opinions or philosophy that you are aware of that I have not asked about, that if you were my client, you would want me to know about?

The trial court shall sustain a challenge for cause if the prospective juror is biased or prejudiced for or against a party to the case. J.R. 17(a)(8). This is no small matter. If found after the trial has begun, it may require the grant of a mistrial. “Generally, proof that a juror was biased against [a party] or lied on voir dire entitles [a party] to a new trial.” Thompson v. Gerowitz, 944 N.E.2d 1, 7-10 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011)(med mal case), citing to, Lopez v. State, 527 N.E.2d 1119, 1130 (Ind.1988). To warrant a new trial, there must be a showing that the misconduct was gross, and that it probably harmed the defendant. Id.; see also Ind. Trial Rule 61 (“The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”). “The issue of juror misconduct is a matter within the trial court’s discretion.” Lopez, 527 N.E.2d at 1130. If substantial evidence showing a juror was possibly biased is brought to the trial court’s attention in a timely manner, it is incumbent upon the trial court to conduct a hearing, out of the presence of the remainder of the jury, to determine:

(1) whether the juror is biased; and

(2) whether the hearing itself has created a bias in the juror. Id.

The court should then allow the affected party to challenge the juror for cause, and should excuse the juror and declare a mistrial if bias is found to be present and infected the jury. Thompson v. Gerowitz, supra. However, establishing juror bias can be particularly problematic. Below is a discussion of some areas of potential bias or prejudice on the part of a juror.

Insurance     Voir dire questions regarding ownership in a specific insurance company or whether the potential juror was insured by that company are proper. Wisner v. Laney, 984 N.E.2d 1201 (Ind.,2012), citing with approval to, Stone v. Stakes, 749 N.E.2d 1277 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), trans. denied.

I.R.E. 411 while not controlling, provides guidance on this topic as well, since the restriction on the introduction of evidence of insurance is not absolute and makes exceptions for proof of other matters. The court in Stone v. Stakes noted that Indiana Evidence Rule 411 states that “[e]vidence that a person was or was not insured against liability is not admissible upon the issue whether the person acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully.” Id. at 1281. However, this rule “does not require the exclusion of evidence of insurance against liability when offered for another purpose, such as . . . ownership, or control, or bias or prejudice of a witness.” Id. (quoting additional language from the evidentiary rule). The court further noted that although Rule 411 is an evidentiary rule not strictly applicable to voir dire, “it provides some guidance in this area regarding what categories of inquiry are acceptable. Rule 411 does not limit the allowable evidence regarding insurance only to financial interest, but also allows evidence going to bias or prejudice.” Id. In the matter of Beyer v. Safron, 84 Ind. App. 512, 151 N.E. 620 (1926), the Court stated:

[L]itigants are entitled to a trial by a thoroughly impartial jury, and to that end have a right to make such preliminary inquiries of the jurors as may seem reasonably necessary to show them to be impartial and disinterested. It is a matter of common knowledge that there are numerous companies engaged in such insurance, and that many of the citizens of the state are stockholders in one or more of them. Such citizens may be called as jurors, and if at such time they are such stockholders, or otherwise interested in any of such companies, their pecuniary interest might disqualify them to sit as jurors.

Id. at 621. In this day of endless insurance company commercials, it seems unlikely such questions are any less relevant or any more likely to be unfairly prejudicial to a defendant than they were back in 1926. Questions embracing this topic would be appropriate provided the questioning is not prolonged or designed to attain some improper end.

Implied Bias – Juror’s Relationship To State. Woolston v State, 453 N.E.2d 965, 968 (Ind. 1983) involved a juror who had a close relationship to the State Police due to his wife’s employment. The juror was familiar with three of the officers who were to testify for the State, and knew that his wife had worked on some of the evidence in the case. Noting that a challenge for cause had been held to exist in cases where a juror’s spouse had been hired for future employment by the prosecutor, and where the juror’s wife was a second cousin to a member of the prosecutor’s staff, Woolston found that, based on the juror’s relationship to the State, it was error for the trial court to deny the challenge for cause.

Knowledge of Matters Outside of the Court Record

Jurors are required to decide a case only based upon the evidence presented at trial and are not to consider matters outside the record. This point is made clear by a number of different provisions. For example, under I.R.E. 606(a), “[a] juror may not testify as a witness before the other jurors at the trial. If a juror is called to testify, the court must give a party an opportunity to object outside the jury’s presence.” If a juror has specialized or particular knowledge outside of the record, they are not permitted to use it in either deciding the case or in their deliberations with other jurors, since to do so makes them in essence a silent witness in the case.

By analogy, judges are similarly prohibited from acquiring knowledge outside the record in deciding a case. Lillie v. US, 953 F.2d 1188, 1191, 34 Fed. R. Evid. Ser. 938 (10th Cir. 1992)(held where Judge based verdict on an unannounced view of the accident scene he violated Federal Rule of Evidence 605); US v Lewis, 833F.2d 1380, 1385, 24 Fed. R. Evid. Ser. 432 (9th Cir. 1987)(held where Judge relied upon his own personal experience as to the effects of anesthesia in determining the voluntariness of a confession, he violated the prohibition against being a witness under Federal Rule of Evidence 605).

Under Indiana Jury Rule 24, in a criminal case, if the court receives information that a juror has personal knowledge about the case, the court shall examine the juror under oath in the presence of the parties and outside the presence of the other jurors concerning that knowledge. If the court finds that the juror has personal knowledge of a material fact, the juror shall be excused, and the court shall replace that juror with an alternate.

When jurors possess knowledge as a result of their education or occupation, it is important to question the juror and make sure that they will decide the case based upon the testimony in court and not the knowledge they possess from outside of the courtroom. Otherwise, they become a witness whom no one had a chance to depose, question, rebut or impeach.

Likewise, knowledge of a case garnered from the press or other outside sources becomes problematic and must be dealt with under Indiana Jury Rule 24 (in criminal cases) to see if the juror has formed an opinion and if that opinion can be set aside and the case decided solely on the evidence presented at trial. Individual voir dire is required in addressing such matters.

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall have the right to a public trial, by a fair and impartial jury. See Indiana Constitution, Bill of Rights, Article 1. Bill of Rights, Section 13 and United State Constitution, Bill of Rights, Amendment VI; Ward v. State, 810 N.E.2d 1042, 1048 (Ind.2004), cert. denied, 126 S. Ct. 395 (2005). “At the heart of the decision on a motion for change of venue is the right to an impartial jury.” Ward v. State, supra; Lindsey v. State, 485 N.E.2d 102, 106 (Ind. 1985). A defendant must demonstrate the existence of two distinct elements:

(1) prejudicial pretrial publicity and

(2) the inability of jurors to render an impartial verdict.

Ward v. State, supra, 810 N.E.2d at 1049. “Prejudicial pretrial publicity is that which contains inflammatory material which would not be admissible at the defendant’s trial or contains misstatements or distortions of the evidence given at trial.” [Emphasis Added]. Ward v. State, supra, quoting from, Burdine v. State, 515 N.E.2d 1085, 1092 (Ind. 1987). In protecting a defendant’s right to a fair and impartial jury, the trial court may consider granting a change of venue, or change of venire as a means of achieving this end. When a change of venire occurs, the location of the actual trial does not change. However, a juror pool from outside of the affected area of pretrial publicity is brought in to serve.  Such motions need to be promptly raised (within 30 days of the initial appearance) or a party risks waiving the issue and being required to show good cause for failing to raise the matter earlier.

Regarding the examination of potential jurors, under IC 35-37-1-5 (b), “If a person called as a juror states that the person has formed or expressed an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant, the court or the parties shall proceed to examine the juror on oath as to the grounds of the juror’s opinion. If the juror’s opinion appears to have been founded upon reading newspaper statements, communications, comments, reports, rumors, or hearsay, and if:

(1) the juror’s opinion appears not to have been founded upon:

(A) conversation with a witness of the transaction;

(B) reading reports of a witness’ testimony; or

(C) hearing a witness testify;

(2) the juror states on oath that the juror feels able, notwithstanding the juror’s opinion, to render an impartial verdict upon the law and evidence; and

(3) the court is satisfied that the juror will render an impartial verdict; the court may admit the juror as competent to serve in the case.”

Covering these points should assist you in identifying and establishing juror bias. Good luck.

Why the Adversary System? Is it the best?

Why the adversary system? Should we be filled pride or skepticism about its use? The adversary system is under appreciated and its value is misunderstood by the public. As a result, it is often held in low regard. When each side is equally represented and  heard, it more often than not results in accurate assessments and outcomes. Then why the skepticism? Misinformation and propaganda by the wealthy and big business suggest that there are all kinds of crazy verdicts against the rich. No one hears when some poor person or working class citizen loses. There voice is not heard. There are very few places in this world where a handy man and a multi-millionaire can square off and be heard by everyday people to resolve their dispute. Absent the contingent fee contract such justice would be impossible for citizens. Corporations, doctors and insurance companies are financially able to hire big law firms and pay $500 plus per hour for an army of attorneys from a politically connected firm to carry their cause. There is no true equalizer in the criminal realm beyond our constitutional rights which many view as mere technicalities. Honestly who could compete against a government which has unlimited funds in a criminal trial. The government has well-trained investigators, experts and attorneys to pursue their position. If they want you badly enough it would be very hard to prevail without the adversary system and its many protections that try to balance the scales of justice. At the end of the day an innocent man’s best hope is to be physically free, but financially drained with a cloud hanging over his personal reputation.
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