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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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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???

2011 Mike Eidson Scholarship Winner

ORIGINALLY POSTED 7/27/11 (Additional comments added on 11/12/11) –NYC went by so fast, but my mom and I had a wonderful time and saw lots of the City.  As a bonus, Derek Jeter got his 3000thhit the weekend we were there. Awesome!

NYC billboard celebrating Jeter's 3000th career hit.

Our main event at the AAJ Convention was a Sunday morning brunch hosted by the Women Trial Lawyers Caucus. I met many talented female trial lawyers who took time to chat and personally encourage me in my law school journey. Just at my table of eight there were three U.S. Congresswomen with whom I had breakfast! At the breakfast I received the Women Trial Lawyers Caucus Mike Eidson Scholarship for $5000.  This is an annual scholarship that the Caucus gives away to one female law student in the country.

I was speechless when I got the call and just honored beyond belief to be selected, especially because when I first considered applying for the scholarship I thought I didn’t qualify.  The award is for a female law student who aspires to be a trial attorney and has taken affirmative steps to reach that goal.  In my mind, that meant you should have joined mock trial or moot court.  Because of my crazy commuting schedule and the fact that these two organizations practice countless hours outside of class, I just couldn’t make it work.

I blew off applying for the scholarship and weeks later had a dream that told me not only that I should apply and what I should say in my essay, but assured me that I would win.  The dream literally walked me through an examination of what I’d done in and out of law school and how these things were relevant to becoming a trial lawyer. I woke up with a plan, but unsure if I’d missed the deadline.  Turns out I had just over a week to complete my application, which I did.  The rest is history.

Receiving the 2011 Mike Eidson Scholarship

I can’t tell you how many successful and prominent people walked up to me at the brunch and commented about how my essay just impacted them.  I was asked specific questions about my submittal such that I knew they had read my application with interest and admiration.  I was repeatedly told that my application was by far the best they received. Wow.  I want to especially thank Marianne LeBlanc and the Women Trial Lawyers Caucus for an unforgettable experience.

Meanwhile, I have to shelve my future lawyer dreams temporarily and focus on completing my legal education. Even though the new semester is still three weeks away, I have a major test coming up. Next Friday I will take the MPRE (Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam) which is the ethics portion of my State Bar exam; a passing score is required to practice in Texas. Seeing as many of my friends are taking the BIG bar exam this very week, the MPRE seems tame by comparison.  Nevertheless, it is a challenge I must conquer before taking my own bar exam next July, so it’s kind of a big deal.

I’ll be in Fort Worth this weekend to take an MPRE review class at school, so my Saturday is pretty much toast. That’s ok; my friend Lyndsay (another blogger) will be there, so we’re in this together. Wish us luck!

New York, Baby!!! That’s Where It’s At!!!

ORIGINALLY POSTED 7/6/11–Start spreading the news….I’m leaving today. Well, not today, but this weekend I’ll be in New York City! This is my all time favorite city, so as I’m sitting here typing I can’t stop smiling.

It’s funny, soon after I submitted the last blog I got a call and received the opportunity to attend the annual American Association for Justice convention in NYC. Clearly, God knows what he’s doing. He has such wonderful things in store for me that it’s a shame I keep getting in the way of His plans.

I’ll be able to attend legal seminars and network at the convention, but I am especially looking forward to a mini-vacation. My last vacation was in 2007 when my family and I spent a week in NYC.  Since then I have been in school, working, or in school AND working—I’m mentally and physically drained. Ironically, the fast-pace and overload of NYC is just what I need for a few days.  The frantic buzz of NYC makes everything else pale in comparison.  I imagine that by the time I come back, I’ll look at my hectic life and be grateful for its comparatively slow and steady pace.   This is just what I needed to lift my spirits.

My mom’s going with me, so watch out 5th Avenue…the girls will be loose in the Big City!  I’ve also found tickets for us to see Jersey Boys on Broadway, but that’s a surprise.  Don’t tell!  Sixty-degree evenings in July!?! Sweet!

Nightmares

ORIGINALLY POSTED 4/27/11–Reading the letter I felt my head spin…all D’s and one F?!? And to make it worse the grades were all written in bright red…staring at me, laughing. How did this happen?

It’s started…I had my first grade nightmare last night. I was so grateful to wake up this morning and find that I still have time to study for my finals and it was nothing more than an anxiety-induced nightmare.   I don’t recall having these kinds of nightmares before though. I’ve gone to sleep only to find my mind continues figuring out one legal fact pattern after another long after I’ve put my books away for the night, but never have I had dreams of grades. That’s kind of unnerving.

Maybe it has to do with this week being the last week of classes and finally getting some detail about exam formats from my professors. One exam is mostly multiple-choice and the other is all multiple-choice.  Both professors said the exam should not take the full three hours. Hmmm, I don’t know how I feel about that. I’ve historically done well with multiple choice exams, but what kind of monster questions are these guys going to think up to separate the herd?  That has me kind of worried and probably why I am quietly freaking out in my sleep.

This was my last week working at the law firm. I have to thank my boss, Randy Moore and all the friends I made at the office for such a great semester. I’ll still be blogging for Randy over the summer, but I’ll miss seeing him, Teresa and Kim every week. Also thanks to Coby Wooten, a Texas Wesleyan Law alum, for encouraging me to get my 3rd year bar card so we can try some cases together.

As our last hurrah, Randy and I are going to a Civil Service Appeal Hearing tomorrow in Grand Prairie.  I’m anxious to see him in action. After spending all semester hanging around with these trial lawyers, litigation is starting to intrigue me more every day. So many choices….

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