Crash Course in Trial Advocacy
20 November 2008
In September of 2007, I was accepted into T-TAP, a trial advocacy program sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Association. The goal of T-TAP is to train attorneys and then refer them to local prosecutorial agencies to serve as pro bono criminal prosecutors. After completing a two-month, night-and-weekend trial advocacy course last December, I signed up for a six-week volunteer stint this summer as a misdemeanor prosecutor in the Office of the Ventura County District Attorney. Over the course of my training I had conducted parts of four separate mock trials, this included initial case assessment, interviewing witnesses and witness preparation, jury selection, and opening and closing arguments.
My training was good, but nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience of actually prosecuting a case. About three days after arriving, I got my first case – a DUI (Driving Under the Influence; the equivalent of DWI – Driving While Intoxicated – in other states). I was handed the file at about 10:30 a.m., twenty minutes before the case was called for trial. When the scheduling judge asked if I was ready for trial, I managed a “yes” that was shockingly convincing. I was then instructed to report to another judge’s chambers at 1:30 to start picking a jury.
Three hours to prepare a case for trial? Unheard of, right? Apparently prosecutors do it all the time. So, after frantically trying to memorize the facts of the case, confirm my witnesses, and prepare a jury selection outline, I found myself in chambers with a judge, a public defender, and a sheen of invincibility about a millimeter thick.
The case was a “low-blow” DUI, which meant that the driver’s blood alcohol test had come in under the legal limit of 0.08. Nevertheless, the arresting officer thought the driver was too impaired to drive and the D.A. wanted to prosecute - so we were going to trial. I let out a huge mental sigh of relief when the judge decided we would start picking a jury the following day.
Start to finish, that trial lasted two-and-a-half days. The jury hung on the DUI count, which was fair. I had two other jury trials during by time there, one a battery and possession of a switchblade case, the other a DUI that, thankfully, hinged on a 0.09 blood alcohol content test. The juries convicted in both cases.
I learned a lot in my time as a misdemeanor prosecutor. For one thing, jurors love PowerPoint presentations. Also, they pay very close attention to how you treat opposing counsel and the defendant (and to how the defendant treats his attorney). Perhaps most importantly, when you’re picking a jury, trust your gut. It isn’t science. It’s justice. And there are no demographics that will tell you who is better at finding the truth.