With no more postponements -- and the jury set -- Wednesday was to be the start of the trial.
As I've mentioned in the previous blogs, I am unable to say too much about the contents of the case itself. Suffice to say that our client is now 14 years old girl and the plaintiff in the case. The incident which led to these proceedings took place approximately two years ago.
Aside from the principles involved in the case, the gallery was empty. My Uncle Mike sat at the left side of the plaintiff's table, which was set to the right of the respondent's table and nearer to the jury than the respondent. His law clerk sat on the right side of the table and our client in the middle. Her mother sat in the front row of the gallery, as did I.
The respondent's attorney was positioned at the right side of his table, with his client to the left of him -- the furthest from the jury of all the participants.
* * *
Opening statements by the attorneys can be brief or can extend to several moments. My uncle prefers the former. He lists the witnesses and a short summary of what their testimony will entail. He finishes with a description of the absolute and only conclusion to which the jury will be able to come to, including damages.
"I've been doing this a lot of years," my uncle told the jury. "I have a pretty good idea how the defense is going to try to spin this, and which laws they plan to twist to confuse you. However, when you hear from (our) witnesses, all you'll have to do is pay attention to the truth, to the facts and to the letter of the law. Once you do those simple things, your duty will be clear. There's no confusion there."
We had five witnesses, including our client, scheduled to testify. She would take the stand second to last, with the psychologist who assisted her following the incident being our final witness. The psychologist would confirm that our client both was severely impacted by the incident, and also reaffirm the validity of her testimony.
Often, the plaintiff will take the stand first or last, but my uncle told me before the trial that he preferred to shake things up a bit, having the jury's last memory being of a professional of some sort -- whether it be a psychologist, medical doctor or law enforcement professional.
* * *
Our witnesses consisted of a police officer, two eyewitnesses, our client and the psychologist. Uncle Mike kept their testimony confined to the specifics of what they saw. While it seemed he didn't want to leave an opening for opposing counsel to jump through during cross examination, he also didn't seem to hold back when it came to soliciting each person's respective testimony.
Each of our witnesses told their story, then were cross examined by the respondent's attorney. From my perspective, it didn't seem as if any of them were shaken nor discredited by the cross examination. I like to think that had a lot to do with my uncle's direct examination.
When it came to our client taking the stand, I received some confirmation on something I had already assumed. One of the areas in which I wish to practice law is in child advocacy. Our client had her attorney -- my uncle -- so there was no child advocate assigned. Had there been a witness under 18 directly affected by the proceedings, the judge may have appointed an advocate for that witness. I had learned that, but was unsure until talking to my uncle prior to the trial's beginning.
She was excellent on the stand. The judge was very good about slowing things down when they needed to, or giving a nudge to speed them up when they needed to be. She told of what happened to her and how it has affected her. In fact, the cross examination from the respondent's attorney was rather brief. At least, it was more brief than I had anticipated.
* * *
It was just after the lunch break on Thursday (the second day) when my uncle rested the plaintiff's case. It was a little quicker than even he had anticipated, but he later told me he had heard all the testimony he thought we would need. He felt even adding another witness would run the risk of cluttering our point. He wanted to paint a clear, concise and overall picture of our case, and what we were asking the jury to do.
At about 2:15 p.m., it would be the respondent's turn to begin presenting his case; for lack of better term in a civil case -- their defense. The respondent was to present testimony from four witnesses for the jury's consideration.
* * *
Two respondent witnesses testified Thursday afternoon. Both claimed to be eyewitnesses. They told their versions of what happened. My feeling was that they seemed very well coached, especially the second of the two. I dismissed that as me being overly critical and perhaps somewhat biased. That is, until my uncle cross examined the second one.
He was able to paint a picture, using the second witness' answers to establish that the witness could not have seen exactly what he said he could. It was all about angles and line of sight. As it turns out, the witness heard of a commotion, then came from around a corner to see just the end of the incident. In other words, he could not have actually seen the events leading up to what happened.
Needless to say, I was quite impressed and proud of my uncle.
* * *
We had been informed that a psychologist and the responded himself were set to testify on Friday.
The psychologist had visited with our client briefly twice in the weeks leading up to the trial. Her purpose was to essentially demean the testimony of our psychologist. She told a good story and, had I not heard it from our client herself, I might have believed this witness. My uncle was not phased by the performance. His cross examination was very short. It primarily consisted of clarifying the time she had spent with our client -- both the amount of time and the actually things discussed during that time. He didn't ask a single question to clarify her professional opinion.
The last witness to take the stand was the respondent. I had been informed to expect stubbornness from him. That assessment rang true. He essentially confirmed the events as depicted by our client and our eyewitnesses. However, he claimed he was in his legal right. It was "just something unfortunate" and our client was "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Uncle Mike asked him just two questions on cross examination. They weren't attacks. Just basic questions. Again, my uncle told me later that he wanted to give the jury the impression that the respondent's testimony just wasn't all that important to the merits of the overall case.
* * *
Closing arguments were scheduled opposite of the openings. The respondent's attorney went first. His instructions to the jury seemed to echo the testimony of his client. He cited one case law which, to me, didn't seem to completely apply to the case. In the end, he told the jurors there was not enough evidence to justify finding in favor of the plaintiff.
I believe my uncle had his closing argument prepared a couple weeks prior to the trial's start date. He recapped each witness who had taken the stand; first the respondent's then ours. He then pointed to each piece of evidence. It was at this point when I understood why he hadn't dug deeper into the respondent's psychologist during cross examination. He was able to use the questions he did not ask as leverage. He painted the picture for the jury about our doctor knowing our client much better, much more often and for much longer.
It made perfect sense to me. This was also the type of strategy I had hoped to learn while observing this case.
* * *
During the entire proceedings I was scanning the jury to see when any of them might be affected by a certain piece of testimony, or something said by the attorney's during opening or closing arguments. There were raised eyebrows, confused looks and several nods along the way. Those mannerisms seemed to correspond to those things which made the most -- or least -- sense. It was fascinating to observe that type of human behavior.
The case itself seemed to go by quickly. My uncle had anticipated four days or so, and just before the lunch break on friday, the judge gave the jurors their instructions. Three-and-a-half-days later and the case was in the hands of the jury.
* * *
We figured the jury would be out for much of the afternoon. Knowing that, my uncle really didn't want nor need to go back to the office on a Friday afternoon. We went to lunch which, after three days of courthouse cafeteria food, was wonderful. We did go back to his office for a short time where he grabbed files from a couple other cases to look at over the weekend. This was something else about which I had been curious. Exactly how much of an attorney's work is done outside of the common 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day? My question was answered; quite a bit.
After a call to the court clerk where we found out the jury remained in deliberations, we went home to relax. My uncle looked over the files to one of the cases while laid down on the patio under some shade.
Uncle Mike's phone rang at about 5:30. It was the court clerk. The jury had come back. It was decided we would head to the courtroom to hear the verdict, rather than let the jury's decision linger over the weekend. This also would enable the jurors to get back to their everyday lives on Monday rather than have to come in and deliver their verdict.
* * *
It was a quarter after six o'clock when all the principles had arrived and the judge came out from his chambers. As Uncle Mike's law clerk was off for the weekend, I took his spot at the right end of our table. Then the judge called for the jurors to come out from their deliberation room.
We stood after the jury foreman confirmed to the judge that the jury had, in fact, come to a verdict. Then it was announced.
Verdict in favor of the plaintiff. I'm almost kicking myself now for not looking in the corner of my eye at the respondent to gauge his reaction. We stood expressionless. With the decision for the plaintiff, there is another step.
The foreman announced that the jury had awarded damages. The compensatory damages were pretty straight forward, as we had submitted the specific amount to the court prior to calling our first witness. At the same time we had submitted a schedule for punitive damages as well. The jury followed that schedule, awarding the exact amount for which our client was asking.
I had learned that the deliberation time in a civil case is two-fold. A plaintiff hopes the jury takes little time in finding in favor of their case. Conversely, the plaintiff hopes the jury takes quite a bit of time determining damages. My uncle was satisfied with the result.
* * *
As the reader of any of the blogs in this series can surmise, this has been an exhilarating, exciting and educational experience for me. It was everything for which I could have hoped.
I very much try to avoid making assumptions or having preconceived notions, but that at times is oh so difficult. What I've learned over this past week is a jump start into doing things in the correct fashion and in the correct order. Law is extremely procedural. That is what I will take away from this experience.
I'll be the first person to admit that I don't know it all, and one case certainly does not make me an expert. What I now have is a starting point.
That's something I really didn't have before.
Note: This is the third and final entry in a series of blogs regarding this experience.