Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Story of the Case

So, I want to give a wrap-up of my murder trial from last week. Overall, it was the most exhausting, exhilerating, challenging, interesting, stress-filled, and edifying experience I have had as a lawyer. It was my first murder trial. I sat second chair with a good friend of mine in the office. She is a fiery, pound-the-table, give-em-hell lawyer. I'm the more measured, even-keeled lawyer who was trying to think about the legal issues every step of the way. Of course, it's not really such a clean division. She's obviously thinking about the law, too, and I can have an occasional give-em-hell moment, but you get the idea. We really worked well together.

The facts were basically that the defendant and a few other guys, including the victim, spent all night in the victim's apartment drinking beer and snorting cocaine. Our client was 19 years old. In the morning, when three people were still in the apartment, our client allegedly stabbed the victim to death. Our claim was self-defense, but, unfortunately, our client did not mention that in his written, voluntary statement to the police. And, the eyewitness did not support that version either. The only reason given by anyone to the police for the stabbing was that the victim was talking trash to our client. And the only thing that pretty much everyone who was in the apartment that night agreed on was that there was a lot of drinking and drugging going on that night. The State had never made a plea bargain offer in the case.

Before trial, we moved to suppress our client's statement, but all we really had was that he was so intoxicated and sleep-deprived at the time he spoke with the detective that he couldn't knowingly and intelligently waive his Miranda rights. Not surprisingly, that didn't get us anywhere. I picked the jury, and used the time to soften them up to the use of deadly force for self-defense and sudden passion. My co-counsel first chair cross-examined most of the State's witnesses. She had personally interviewed the two main fact witnesses before trial, and both of them had given written statements to the police--but both of them managed to come up with more damning, incriminating details at trial than they mentioned in either their written statements to police or when interviewed by my colleague. She crossed them well on the inconsistencies, and got them to admit that the victim had done a bit of bragging that night about his new gun. I crossed the medical examiner which did a little to help us--by supporting our client's story that the victim had done cocaine several hours after the other witnesses said he had stopped. And, our client testified to his version of events--that right before he stabbed the victim, the victim had threatened him that he would never get out the place alive--and I thought did a pretty good job. The big problem, though, was his statement to police which did not mention that fact. The State gave a very good closing argument, although their insistence that the fact that no one ever actually saw the victim's gun meant deadly force could not have been reasonable seemed a little stubborn and boneheaded to me. If someone tells you all night they have a gun, and then threaten to kill you, I don't think you have to actually wait to see the gun before you defend yourself with deadly force. Maybe that's just me. Anyway, my co-counsel gave a great closing argument as well. But in the end, I think our client's statement to the police was simply impossible for the jurors to discount. They deliberated for a little over an hour and found our client guilty.

Next came the punishment phase, which I did most of. Texas does not have an offense of voluntary manslaughter. Instead, in the punishment phase of a murder case, the jury may be asked to decide if the defendant acted in sudden passion. The burden is on the defense to establish sudden passion by a preponderance of the evidence. If you do, then the range of punishment drops from 5-99 years or life in prison to 2-20 years in prison. The evidence can come from the guilt-innocence or punishment phase of the trial. Sudden passion is basically defined as provocation from the victim that would cause an ordinary person to have so much anger, rage, resentment, or terror that their mind is incapable of cool reflection. We mostly relied on the evidence produced at the guilt-innocence stage for sudden passion. We also put on three female relatives of our client to talk about his childhood and teen years, family problems, history of alcohol abuse, even-tempered and non-violent nature, and to generally beg the jury for mercy. It was difficult for them, but I thought they did a good job. Because our client had never been convicted of a felony, he was eligible for probation, so we called a probation officer to testify about conditions of probation--supervision, drug testing, drug treatment, community service, etc. The State called the surrogate father of the victim and his employer to talk about him and what a good person he was. Neither of them seemed bothered by the fact he was hosting an all-night party involving minors drinking (the victim's age was murky--he wasn't born here--but he was at least 25) and doing cocaine. They also called a couple officers to try to establish our client had committed a couple misdemeanors before (he hasn't been convicted of either offense). I did the closing argument on punishment which was a real challenge. The jury had such a wide range of punishment to consider that I literally felt that our client's life was in my hands. I asked the jury to consider the evidence of sudden passion, and also to consider that he was more than this one horrible act. I tried to weave together the incidents in his life told by his relatives and that he was someone's son, nephew, cousin, and grandson. My voice actually started cracking and I had to really hold it together not to cry. I really feel like I did the best I could have done for our client. We asked for probation or no more than 15 years. The State did a fine closing argument as well, but asked the jury for no less than 50 years. In the end, the jury rejected sudden passion, and gave our client 35 years. He will be eligible for parole after serving half that time.

When it was all over, I felt more tired than I have ever felt in my life. I think adrenaline had been keeping me going for the last half of the trial, and when my body realized it didn't need the adrenaline any more, I finally felt the complete exhaustion. I spent the weekend trying to rest and reflect on the experience. I really feel like we gave our client an excellent trial. We protected his legal rights. We brought out all the evidence favorable to his position and challenged all the evidence the State produced. We made our best arguments to the jury. And I think the jury did their honest best to do justice in a very difficult case.

It really was an incredible experience. I learned so much, and challenged myself like I never have before. And I really do believe that we gave our client one hell of a trial.

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