Monthly Archives: January 2012

Death Penalty Voir Dire For My Birthday

Ok, I have to blog about this TODAY before I forget all the important details, but here’s the thing:  I’m not really sure how specific I can be because some of what went down today in court is highly personal to the individual involved.  That being said, it warrants discussion if only to show just how the workings of the judicial system are ever-changing and never cease to amaze even the most seasoned lawyers.

As part of my prosecution clinic I am assigned to two attorneys in two different divisions.  One of the attorneys, we’ll call her “B” is working on a capital murder case outside of her usual jurisdiction and trying it with their local attorneys.  I ran into Ms. B yesterday on one of her infrequent visits back at the home office.  She invited me to go with her to court and watch as she worked on picking a jury (voir dire) for the case.  Because I am away from home for my birthday today I thought, wow…this experience will most certainly memorialize this birthday (my LAST one as a law student), so of course I accepted the offer and off I went to court.

Background:

The Defendant is up for the death penalty, so voir dire is an extremely detailed, long and tedious process, which, is as it should be if you’re going to possibly take someone’s life.   What I didn’t know and found out once I got there is that death penalty voir dire is one-on-one.  That means that both the State and the Defense talk to and question the potential jurors one at a time.  They call for a large pool of people, everyone fills out a long questionnaire that both sides compile to gather some background information on the person.  Both sides use this information to ask questions during voir dire or maybe even exclude a potential juror based on their answers.

The questionnaire can ask almost anything meant to uncover hidden biases that may prejudice the person for or against either side.  In death penalty cases, of course, both sides want to know the potential juror’s opinion on the death penalty.  They will often ask about their opinion of expert witnesses, law enforcement, lawyers etc.  Also, the parties want to know if the potential juror has any criminal history either as a defendant or as a victim of crime.   Medications, mental issues, connection to political organizations or religion…all of this tells both sides more about the potential juror and gives them a sense of whether they’d be good for the defense or good for the prosecution.   So in death penalty cases, all of these issues are open for discussion to both the state and defense until each side is satisfied with the information they’ve gathered.  The person comes into the courtroom and sits alone in the jury box and first the prosecution asks its questions and then the defense.  It’s very conversational, but everything is spoken in generalities because at this point no hard facts on the case at issue can be disclosed.  The Defendant is present in court.

Today:

I sat in on the voir dire of one potential juror today; a woman in her mid 60’s.  We’ll call her “G.”  I reviewed her questionnaire and noticed that there wasn’t much detail on several pages.  Things that caught my eye:  1) She felt strongly about personal responsibility, 2) She felt strongly that a person’s background did not excuse their commission of crime, 3) She admitted to having been sexually abused by her father as a child, 4) She’d been married five times, and 5) She was worried about a long trial because she is the care giver for her morbidly obese husband.   Ok.

Everything went fine through the Prosecution voir dire.  Ms. G seemed to follow along, seemed quite agreeable and appeared to be a generally good fit for the Prosecution.  Pass to the Defense…here’s where it got weird.

Defense wants to know this and that…Ms. G is forthcoming.  Defense attorney is smiling and engaging; so is  Ms. G.  Defense attorney attempts to switch gears and address some specifics in the questionnaire.  He goes to pick up his copy and Ms. G says [Paraphrasing] “I have something to tell you.  I don’t know whether it’s important and nobody ever asked, but my son was murdered by my step-son.”

Before Ms. G said this, there were four prosecutors sitting at the table in front of me, all of them slightly reclining in their chairs–the one Defense attorney still at the table and the Defendant were also sitting similarly.  Once Ms. G dropped this bomb, all five attorneys simultaneously sat upright and leaned forward in their chairs.  I do believe the questioning Defense attorney had to pick up his jaw from the floor.  We were all momentarily stunned–there was none of this on the questionnaire which did ask about being a victim of crime (either self or family member).

Obviously this had to be explored further.  Mr. Defense attorney first offered his condolences to Ms. G.  She said she was fine and had “gotten over it.”  Here’s how it went from there:

Defense:  How old were you when this happened?

Ms. G:  21

Defense:  How old was your son?

Ms. G:  9

Immediately I know that everyone in the room is doing the math because I AM doing the math.  Twelve?!?!  She had this kid, who was ultimately shot to death by his 15 year-old step brother, when she was twelve?!?  Then one of the facts in the questionnaire that caught my eye came back to me.  The pieces fell into place.  I knew.  I think all of us: me, the six attorneys, the judge all knew.  The likely truth was too hard to comprehend.

The questioning ended pretty soon after this exchange.  Not that I don’t think there were more questions to be asked, just that all of us were reeling from what had just been disclosed and the implications of what hadn’t.  The Defense attorney attempted to wrap up and asked Ms. G if she had any questions.  She did.  She pointed and asked, “Is that the Defendant?”  We all turned and looked at him and the Defense attorney replied, “Yes, yes it is.”  Ms. G got a big smile on her face, waved at him and said, “Oh, HI!!!”

Uncomfortable silence.

Needless to say, once Ms. G was cleared of the courtroom the discussions began.  Neither side is wild about having her on the jury because she’s all over the place, but they aren’t  ready to exclude her because there is still more of the jury panel that they have yet to meet.  There may be someone down the line that is a worse option for either side in which case, they’ll take Ms. G instead.

One thing everyone did agree upon was that THIS voir dire was one of the strangest ones any of them had experienced.  EVER.  In a room with collectively over 75 years of trial experience present, that is something else.  Surreal was the word used more than once.  We were all left scratching our heads.

I for one, had one of the best, most bizarre and unforgettable birthdays ever.

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Prepping for Bar Prepping

So many things have gone in in these first two weeks of the semester that I haven’t even had time to organize my thoughts for publication.  I think there are about three incomplete blog entries sitting in my ‘Drafts’ folder  on topics that may, or may not, ever see the light of day.

The most pressing topic today is the incredible amount of money that is flowing OUT of my bank account and into all things “bar exam related.”  I finally got up the nerve to look at the balance I owe for my bar prep course (which shall remain nameless, but begins with a “B” and has another “b” right close by the first one).  I literally wanted to throw up.  Graphic…I know, but there is no other way to describe the sick sinking feeling of discovering that I have four (4) months to pay in excess of one extra HOUSE payment to re-learn what I’ve just spent nearly six-figures learning for almost four years.

Actually, I should clarify, bar prep teaches you what you need to PASS  the bar but in no way captures all you learn in law school.  But let’s be real, the vast majority of people go to law school to practice law, you need to pass the bar to practice law, AND getting through law school in no way GUARANTEES you will pass the bar…ergo, bar prep is way more important than law school per se just because passing the bar and getting licensed is the key to the city.

Yeah, yeah…I know you can’ t take the bar exam (at least in Texas) WITHOUT getting a J.D., but my logic is meant to make a point:  If what you need to reach minimal competency (A passing bar score is only 67.5% or 675/1000 possible points) can be accomplished in 2.5 months of diligent (Read: 12 hour days) study for the price of one month’s house payment (Read: A decent chunk of change, BUT much less than the cost of a 4 yr. J.D. plan), then WHY does law school take so long and why is it so dang expensive?!?!   When I become SRU (Supreme Ruler of the Universe) I am going to insist that law schools INCLUDE a good bar prep course at the end of the program just because, dang it, by then we’ve spent enough.  We should get a full-fledged bar prep course as a parting gift or graduation present!!  Something.

I can see it now:  THAT magic day when you’ve completed your program and are to transition into bar prep the professors just stop mid-Socratic sentence and say, “Alright…no more hiding the ball, here’s what you need to know to pass the bar…”  By all means, throw back the veil, show me the wizard behind the curtain!

I actually have one professor at Tex Wes who does that.  Contracts used to be 2 semesters long (I say “used to be” because I don’t know what curriculum changes they’ve made since my 1L year), but he’d play “What am I thinking” or “Hide-The-Ball” or “I-Don’t-Know,-What-Do-You-Think?” all year-long and at the tail end of the spring semester it was like he turned the corner.  He’d try to keep playing his law professor games, but then he’d just relent and say, “Ok, let’s just bottom-line this.”  Hallelujah!!  What a wonderful idea!!  From what I heard about bar prep, that’s all it is:  2.5 months of bottom lining.  Sweet.

[Truth be told, this professor isn’t really very good at the whole Hide-The-Ball game.  I think you have to have a kind of sick sense of humor or enjoy making ignorant law students squirm to be good at the true Socratic method.  This guy is just too nice.  Thankfully.]

Anyway, my conclusion on bar prep can be summed up in the words of my fortune cookie:

That’s why this semester one of my current classes is Passing the Bar.  It does NOT replace my over-priced bar prep course, but is in addition to.  I’m taking this class very seriously because I want to get into the right mindset of discipline and working hard to pass the bar.  I might as well start now, right?

So I read all the handouts Professor Chambers gave us the first day.  One was a mnemonic using the phrase: MUST PASS BAR.  Each letter stood for something and the whole hand out  was meant to give us some words of encouragement when we get the bar blues…which I continually hear is inevitable.  It’s not “if” you’ll have a meltdown, it’s “when.”  So be it.  I was fine until I read the last paragraph on the letter “R” which stands for RESULT:

“Result will be to your liking.  You will pass the bar exam.  You may not think so during or after the exam, but you will pass the very first time you take the bar exam.  You will pass because you worked hard and smart for the entire preparation period.  Above all, you will pass because during the exam, you kept your head clear and your nerves steeled, and followed your carefully crafted plan for tackling each section of the exam.  Very soon, you will get to do the very thing your Momma said you shouldn’t do, swear.  Only this time you can swear with Momma’s blessing, in fact she’ll be downright proud to hear you swear.  Heck, she will even encourage you to swear!”

I read all of this.  Used white out and changed all the “yours and yous” to “my, I and me.”  Then I proceeded to have my first mini-melt down.  Yep, this is gonna be a long 7 months….

 

Spring Semester 2012: Bring It On!

Well tomorrow is my last first day of law school.  I’m excited and nervous and a bit sad because I know full well how fast semesters fly by.  The sooner it starts, the sooner it will be over.  I’m not really sure if I’m ready to move on; I’ve grown comfortable here and I like comfort.

The Spring semester officially kicked off for most people today, but my new schedule is sleek and compact.  I have 9 hours to graduate and have managed to squeeze those into a three-day week; Tuesday through Thursday.  Although it sounds easy, once you add my 7 hours a week working as a Westlaw student rep. at school and the approximately 15 hours per week I’ll be working at the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office (more on this later), it’s just as much work in fewer days.   Wish me luck squeezing all this into the time I’ve got. I’ve not yet had any classes, so comments on that will have to wait until later this week.

I will say that my Winter-mester class was fantastic!  I just loved it.  I spent WAY too much time on it for a pass/fail class, but I really wanted to get the most out of the experience.  Our last assignment was to argue a Motion for Summary Judgment.  We only found out which party we were representing on Friday evening, so I ended up working all night and into the wee hours of the morning to get my argument and Powerpoint together.  I got about three hours of sleep, so when the alarm went off at 6:45 am, I was a bit slow.

It ended up that I was one of the last pair to argue and by then, I was dragging.  I felt like it wasn’t my best performance (we’ll get a video of it in about a week, so we’ll see!), but the critique I got from the Judge was excellent and all my classmates gave me top scores and positive comments.  In all it was a great experience and it’s just nice to get a little more confidence about arguing in front of a judge and thinking on your feet while your opponent makes his or her points.  It takes practice to juggle all that’s going on at one time.  I long for the day when this will come to me more naturally.

Judge Sudderth was so helpful and patient in answering all of our questions.  That was by far the most helpful thing–just having someone to ask the simple questions like, “Which side of the courtroom does the plaintiff/defendant sit?” or “How do you stop the proceedings if you have to go to the bathroom?”  Seriously, things like this become important and it’s good to know the protocol from the judge herself.

Another important thing I learned from this experience meeting Judge Sudderth up close and personal:  Judges are just people like us.  In law school we’re trained that judges are on a different plane than regular attorneys and well, they are, but still they put on their shoes one at a time like we all do.  You can only do the best you can do; the judge, for the most part, doesn’t want to embarrass or humiliate you.  Everyone is just trying to do their job.  I hope to keep this lesson in mind as I progress through my career meeting all kinds of judges and attorneys.

In other news, I’m still waiting on some grades to post, so the fall has yet to wrap up, but tomorrow….my spring begins in earnest!  Time for one last dance with Texas Wesleyan School of Law!

After Hours Court Antics & My Winter-mester Class

This is my second evening in my Winter-mester class and it’s been pretty interesting so far.  The course I’m taking this week (one week = one credit) is Civil Motion Practice.  My reasons for taking this class can be summed up with the phrase: Long-term benefits.  Here are the pluses as I see them:

1)  Motion Practice is practical and useful

The reality is that good old-fashioned trials are getting harder to come by.  Cases, both civil and criminal, settle more often than they go to court.  Note that “settling” in the criminal sense is called “taking a plea.”  Anyway, I think the statistic is somewhere around 90% of cases settle.  So, being able to argue and win a crucial motion can often give you a stronger negotiating position for settling the case.

2) Opportunity to practice oral advocacy

I don’t know many people that are just  a-OK with speaking in front of people.  It’s nerve-wracking and well, nobody wants to look silly in front of others.  It’s kind of a given that if you’re in law school there will come a time when you HAVE to stand up and make an oral argument.  I’ve done it a  handful of times and each time I do it gets just a bit easier.  A bit.  Actually, leading up to my turn at the podium the nerves are there, but somewhere between “May it please the Court” and “Thank you, your Honor” I get in the zone.  When I sit down, I have (thus far) always thoroughly enjoyed myself.   So I’m all for practice.

3) Gain some confidence at the podium and learn court decorum

For me, this class is a crash course in what to do and not to do in court.  The professor is a sitting District Court judge, so the chance to ask her pointed questions about “How do you do this,” or “Is it ok to do that,” is something to be valued.  I am going to need this information come next week when my stint in the DA’s office begins.

So in all, with two sessions under my belt, I’m already really glad I took this class—it is exactly what I wanted it to be.

HOWEVER,  I do have to comment on just one aspect of the class about which I’m less than pleased and it actually has nothing to do with the class per se, but more with an attendee.  I purposely focused on the positives of the class first hoping to curb my comments a bit on this, but it has to be said.

Law school…oh, law school…you bring the wildest bunch of people together.  I’ve never been in a place where there are so many people like me (Type A personality, super organized, highly competitive etc.) and yet certain of these same people drive me NUTS!!  So yesterday in our first class, I know I totally outed myself with a reaction to someone’s question.

Here’s the scene:  The class is small, 12 of us, and the Judge is giving us an over view of the course, her expectations, and specifically discussing our assignment for tomorrow (which is what we did tonight).  This classmate at issue has already gotten my attention because before class he was talking way too loud about way to many theories of law, constitutional provisions, and land mark cases.  It’s obvious he wants to appear smart and knowledgeable and just basically show off.  Not liking this so far.

Once the Judge explains our assignment which is to argue both sides of a Motion to Enter Defendant’s Property (pretty simple and straight-forward), the classmate (not surprisingly), wants to ask a question.  He asks the Judge…a sitting District Court Judge…whether he should focus more on the ethos,” “pathos”  or “logos of the argument.   I about died, and while I thought it was only in my head, I later realized that I groaned…audibly.  Thankfully I did though, because I really think my groan muffled all the noisy eye rolling from everyone else in the room.

“C’mon man!  Stop wasting everyone’s time,” I wanted to say.  I guess by the time you are 9 hours away from graduating law school you just don’t care for this kind of drivel.  That, and it’s just annoying and it keeps others from asking real questions because they are trying hard not to be “that guy” that asks the inane questions.  Really, I was waiting for him to ask the Judge, “What’s my motivation?” Geez!  Even so, I was mortified that I groaned out loud.  Sort of..well, maybe not so much.  Ok, not really.

For today’s arguments we met in the Judge’s courtroom.  I wouldn’t have been too sad to get this guy; I could’ve taken him.  But instead I got called first and went against someone else.   There wasn’t really any time for nerves.  I got up to the podium, literally, THE first one of the students to speak, and I did it.  I made my arguments, I was succinct, I had a copy of the rule and offered it to the Judge (she loved that!!), I made lots of eye contact, I outlined my points and sat down.  Done.   Everyone else got the benefit of seeing it done by someone else first.  It was a pretty cool rush and I think I’m gonna enjoy the rest of this week.

The trip from the courthouse ended on a super funny note.  Another classmate and I carpooled and when we came back to my car an SUV had street parked nearly touching my front bumper.  Luckily, I had left space behind me and I have a small car or I’d not have been able to get out.  This seemed like the perfect opportunity to open my packet of Fake Parking tickets, so I issued one to the inconsiderate driver and left it on his windshield.  The “ticket” is bright yellow and says in bold print:  PARKING VIOLATION

Here’s the message written on the ticket:

“This is not a ticket, but if it were within my power, you would receive two. Because of your Bull Headed, inconsiderate, feeble attempt at parking, you have taken enough room for a 20 mule team, 2 elephants, 1 goat, and a safari of pygmies from the African interior. The reason for giving you this is so that in the future you may think of someone else, other than yourself. Besides I don’t like domineering, egotistical or simple-minded drivers and you fit into one of these categories.

I sign off wishing you an early transmission failure (on the expressway at about 4:30 p.m.). Also may the Fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits. With My Compliments.”

 

Hahahaha….who says law school is all work and no play???

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