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The Making of a Litigator

Fifty-five minutes.  That’s the amount of time that I spent on “jury duty” (excluding the fact that I had to get up early, drive downtown and find parking—which as it turns out, is not an issue IF you get there early).

I did have to go through the metal detector and (of course) I ‘dinged’ and so I had to then get wanded.  My laptop and purse went through the x-ray, but there wasn’t a line or even a crowd like I’m used to at the district or criminal court houses I’ve frequented before.  AND, I didn’t have to take off my shoes.   So that’s a plus.

There were 26 of us called and by show time, 24 were present and accounted for.  When I got there and signed in, I noticed that I was “Juror #24.”  At that moment, I knew I was off the hook.  The fact that I am nearly a law school grad, currently work for the DA in Tarrant County, and previously worked for the City of Austin was irrelevant.  Why?  This was a municipal trial requiring only a six person jury.  I was three rows back and knew even if both sides used all their peremptory challenges and there were a handful of additional legitimate challenges for cause, I was way too far back.  So I quickly lost interest. And, sure enough, we were released after a short voir dire.

About all I gleaned from the voir dire on the case was that it was for a speeding ticket and the cop showed up.  A lot of times the Defendants will play the odds that the cop won’t show up and then they can win by default.  Not this time.  As there were no other witnesses, it was he said/she said.  Also, Defendant was appearing pro se and the City was represented by counsel.

During my summer with the City we previously visited Muni court and watched other prosecutors handle speeding cases.  From that experience I know that the APD doesn’t use those old-fashioned radar guns that send out doppler waves to determine the speed of an object.  Instead they use a laser radar gun.  This allows the cop to point the laser at the exact license plate of the car they are trying to clock.  There is no “Maybe it wasn’t MY car speeding.”  Nope…these guns are calibrated before and after every shift so the officer knows they are in working order and they hit the intended target with pin point accuracy.  Although the judge said we could sit and watch the trial after we were dismissed from the panel, I pretty much knew how that was going down.

On one hand I thought of all the time, effort and money spent on a jury trial for this one little ‘ol speeding ticket, but then again, the right to a trial by jury is guaranteed in the United States Constitution and obviously the Founding Fathers thought it important enough to ensure that we Americans would always have this right.  So, more power to Ms. Defendant for making the state meet its burden and exercising her Constitutional right to a jury of her peers.   Besides, how else are new lawyers supposed to get trial experience?

Speaking of, my weeks at the DA’s office are swiftly coming to a close.  After this week, I have two more to go.  I met with the Deputy DA, Jack Strickland this week and we discussed what all I’d been doing since the last meeting and what else I had yet to do.  I asked about getting into a trial, or two, before leaving.  He suggested I try the Misdemeanor section if I really want to get into the courtroom.  So I emailed the division chief, Richard Alpert to see about making that happen.  Fingers crossed!

Meanwhile, I continue to absorb as much as I can every day I’m there.  I have tremendous respect for the Tarrant County DA’s Office and all the attorneys who have shared their time and expertise with us over the course of the semester.  I am now a firm believer that law schools need to provide more clinic opportunities to their students.  Getting in, rolling up your sleeves and working a case is way more valuable than reading about it. Doing the work alongside a great attorney-mentor is even better and this has been my experience in the Criminal Prosecution Clinic.

My only regret is that I didn’t get to spend as much time as I would have liked with one of my supervising attorneys, Christy Jack.   I spent that memorable day back in January when we had that bizarre death penalty voir dire and a few other hours here and there, but I have the distinct feeling that I missed out on a lot by not having her around.   My immediate opinion of her was that she is smart, articulate, and funny.  I soon learned that she is also a courtroom rockstar.  She’s been back almost two weeks from her marathon death penalty trial in Johnson County and the office dynamic is completely different.  There’s no doubt that she’s one of those people to whom others are drawn—a natural leader.

I did one assignment for her on that Johnson County case:  preparing a notebook of testimony offered by the Defense’s expert witness in other cases.   She asked me to go through the testimony and mark when the state made a “point” in the cross.  At first the assignment didn’t make complete sense to me and I asked questions which she patiently answered.  As I started reading the transcripts I saw what she was doing.  She was reviewing past cases and looking at what lines of cross examination worked and didn’t work on this witness.  She was de-constructing his testimony to construct her own cross.  It was brilliant; lots of work, but brilliant.  THAT is how you prepare a case.  I have no doubt she knew that witness inside and out by show time.   Seeing an established attorney put in this level of work on a case does wonders to inspire the others around to work just as hard.  I know I wanted my notebook to be flawless for her and she came back later and said that it had been very helpful.  Knowing that  your boss is putting in as many or more hours than you builds loyalty and support unlike anything else. It’s teaching by modeling.

I would love to learn to be a trial lawyer from Christy.   And if those defendants knew what they were up against, they’d take the offered pleas.  Seriously.   I know I sound like I’m just in awe of her, and well, I guess I am.  Being a DA is hard enough without adding law students to the mix and carving out the time and patience to explain with particularity what’s going on and what we can do to help.  I hope that I can take all of what I’ve learned this semester from this opportunity and make a positive contribution wherever I go.  Clearly, I have been working with the Dream Team.

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Slam, Bam…Thank you, Grand Jury

Got some studying to do tonight, but just had to report back:

Presented my two cases to the Grand Jury  today; both were aggravated sexual assaults on children.  (“Aggravated” because of the age of the children at the time of the incidents—5 and 6 years old.)  I reviewed with the Grand Jury all the facts of the case I had pulled together from our records and gave them everything we had.   I sat there in front of 12 strangers and one DA and detailed all the sad, nasty details of what these babies experienced at the hands of grown men.

It occurred to me that these kids have experienced things sexually that some adults haven’t.  Makes me sick.  At the end of my presentation , I asked that they return a true bill  on both cases.

Maybe five minutes after the DA and I walked out, we got our true bills.  All we needed was 9 out of 12 to go forward.  I got all 12.

Guess I know two people whose lives just went from bad to worse.  Can’t say I’m going to lose much sleep.

Nite.

Crim Prosecution Clinic in the Blogs

So I know I keep talking about the “Criminal Prosecution Clinic” that I’m doing through the law school and in conjunction with the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, but it is by far the best experience I’ve had in all of my wonderful time at Texas Wesleyan School of Law.  I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to be on this team of just seven students.  Daily we are working with many of the best and brightest attorneys in the north Texas, if not in the whole state of Texas.  In my opinion, what makes the clinic experience so valuable is the opportunity we get to watch other  attorneys do what they do; this is really the only way to learn the art of lawyering.

Our class was recently visited by the DA’s Public Information Officer who subsequently gave our clinic a bit of a “shout out”  on the Tarrant County DA’s website.  The blog entry gives a little more background on our clinic, what we’ve done, where we’ve gone and the prosecutors with whom we work.  The blog includes a pic of us at our class this last Wednesday where we learned about voir dire and picking a jury.  There are way more layers and complexities to that than I ever expected.

I’ m really proud to be associated with this team; I think we’re pretty awesome and I know the work done by the Tarrant DAs is top-notch. Every day that I’m there I learn something new and have the opportunity to see how true professionals handle the day-to-day of practicing criminal law.  It is truly fascinating.

While there is no doubt in my mind that I could not fully appreciate what I’m seeing and doing now without a fundamental understanding of the basics I learned at the beginning of law school (Read:  Do well in 1L year Crim Law and Procedure), I have to say:  It is GOOD to be a 3L.  The lessons I’m learning and experiences I’m having in this clinic are  invaluable to those of us nearing the end of our time in law school.  This is where it’s at!

While they have not yet pushed us fully out of the nest, through Tex Wes Law and the Tarrant County DA’s office, we’re sure getting a chance to stretch our legal wings and get our feet wet!

My student bar car is burning a hole in my pocket…

Farewell, N.O.–Thanks for the Memories!

Wow, it’s taken me a few days to catch up with law school and life after my trip to the Big Easy.  I’ve gotten behind in my coverage and to this point had neglected to detail the last day of the Judicial Internship Program.  So, where was I?  Oh yes…Day 3.

Saturday was the last day of the conference and it was devoted to wrapping up our research assignment and presenting our final outline to the judges.  Our group was pretty happy with the results, as were our judges. We also got together and took group pictures to memorialize our time together.

Afterward, all the judges sat on a panel in front of the room and opened the floor to Q&A, which was really useful.  After several days of talking, networking and getting to know each other, questions from the audience of law students came easily.  All of us were way more comfortable with each other by this point.

Wrapping up the Program we all received personalized certificates for attending and said farewell to our new friends and the judges who so graciously donated their time to the ABA Judicial Clerkship Program.

We were then treated to a wonderful luncheon to witness the presentation of the 2012 Spirit of Excellence Awards.  These are prestigious awards given by the ABA to honor lawyers who have worked to promote more diversity in the legal profession.  All of the honorees gave such moving acceptance speeches and I, more than once, had to swallow a lump in my throat.  Of course, I could truly identify with the Honorable Petra Jimenez Maes when she spoke of becoming the first Hispanic female law student at the University of New Mexico School of Law. 

I couldn’ t help but feel humbled to be in the same room with someone whose struggles undoubtedly made my path to law school as a Hispanic female just a bit easier. It is truly amazing to be among such trailblazers and rebels who sacrificed a lot in order to gain equality and opportunity for those that followed in their footsteps.  It’s as if I’m standing on the shoulders of those that went ahead of me to make a path.  What a good feeling.  I can only hope that my career trajectory will put me in a position to do the same for my sisters behind me.

After that uplifting experience, it was almost time to load up on the airport shuttle for the ride back to the Louis Armstrong Airport…BUT, the ABA conference had one more event that I just could not pass up.  Although it was not an event that was specifically part of the Judicial Conference, almost on Day 1 the rumors started.  At first, I wasn’t sure it could be true, but the rumor never quite died down and then on that last day it was confirmed:  United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was going to be onsite and we would be allowed to attend his presentation and see him in person.  I was beside myself with excitement!

The hotel had set up two small ballrooms for attendees to sit and there was a small platform with two chairs where Justice Scalia and the moderator sat.  Considering there were maybe 150 people in the rooms, it was a rather intimate space.   After he was introduced, the moderator just began asking Justice Scalia questions about the Court, his impressions, how things have changed during his tenure, etc.  Although we could only stay for about 20 minutes of the conversation, what I did find out is that Justice Scalia has a razor sharp wit and a really great sense of humor.  In my opinion, he is just brilliant.  I could have sat and listened to him talk about all he’s done and all he’s seen, for hours.  In the end, it was just fantastic to be in such close proximity to someone so important to the shaping of American jurisprudence as Justice Scalia has been, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Before we were told that pictures were not allowed, I took a few and I’m glad I did.  This was an opportunity I probably won’t ever have again.  This is why I never go anywhere without my camera!

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