The Tale of a Bad Case

This week I had a friend ask me to write about my worst legal experience. I immediately said NO. There have been a lot of gut-wrenching, nightmare making, soul searching cases that I choose not to relive.

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The more I thought about this, I did recall one I don’t mind sharing.

I had been a prosecutor for about three years and was assigned to do misdemeanor trials. Today, prosecutors are assigned their cases ahead of time and have a chance to review them. Then, in the days of “Wild West” prosecution, I sat with a group of young attorneys in court behind our misdemeanor team leader. If a case got confirmed for trial, he would turn around with a slim, manila folder and hand it to the lucky recipient with the words “You’re in Department 3” or wherever you were sent.

One day, I was handed a file and flipped through the pages of the police report as I walked toward the department. It was a battery case. A young man had decide he didn’t like something my male victim had said and hit him.

When I got to the department, my victim sat outside on one of the wooden benches. He was a middle-aged, thin man and looked like he’d just eaten a lemon, lips pursed in a sour expression. I introduced myself and told him to tell me what had happened. He was angry, volatile and had a very healthy sense of entitlement. Within two minutes, I wanted to hit him.

The defense attorney was a blind man who had a loveable, yellow Lab seeing-eye dog. I  wore a pleated skirt with a bow in my hair in a futile attempt to counteract the cuteness of the dog.

The only thing I had going for me was the young male defendant was built like a football player, clearly much larger and more threatening than my victim, and he wore an earring. I was in a conservative part of the county and most of the jurors wouldn’t like that.

After picking a jury and doing opening statements, I called the victim to the stand. It immediately became a game of “Just answer the question.” The victim was determined to go down side roads, embellish his answers and give irrelevant responses no matter what I asked. It took way too long to get the story out about what had happened and I sat down, exasperated, knowing the jury’s patience was probably wearing thin.

Then cross-examination began. After some initial questions, the defense said “I understand you’re on kidney dialysis. Are you familiar with how this affects your ability to recall events?”

This was a fair question. Maybe the victim’s medical condition messed with his memory.

My victim’s response?

“I’m as familiar with my condition as you are with your BLINDNESS! And I’m on (lists numerous drugs) due to being a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. I’m under treatment by a renowned psychologist and (begins long diatribe about his mental illness.)”

My thoughts about this aren’t printable. You get surprises sometimes during trials, but not like that. The victim hadn’t chosen to share this information with me previous to this moment or I would’ve done something to soften it and I would have brought it out in my case. Now it was like watching a traffic accident you couldn’t stop.

In closing arguments, I told the jury that yes, the victim was unlikable, but it could be caused by his mental illness.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination that something he said would make you want to hit him, but that was against the law.

That was all I had. I mean, really.

Waiting for verdicts is always the hardest part of a case. You pace around the office, try to distract yourself with other work, but it’s always on your mind. Time passed. More time passed. I’d anticipated a quick “Not guilty.”

Several hours later, I got a call to come to the court for some surprising news: the jury was hopelessly deadlocked. When polled, the jury came back 10-2 for not guilty. I’d managed to convince two out of twelve and still count that as a very memorable “win.”

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