THE DEFENSE REPORT
MY FIRST JURY TRIAL TRIAL BY FIRE
By the time this newsletter reaches you, I hope fall will have begun in earnest. The cool weather and changing leaves make this one of the best times to call Georgia home. I also enjoy the fall because it feels like a season for reflection. I like to remind myself of the people and events that got me where I am today. So, what better time to share the story of one of the most influential of these moments? It was 2004, and I was fresh out of law school. I’d landed a job at the prosecutor’s office in the City Court of Atlanta at a very interesting time — the court was perilously close to being dissolved. As the state and city council argued over the fate of my new place of employment, veteran prosecutors were jumping ship left and right, transferring to other offices or going into private practice. This absence of experienced lawyers is what led to one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in my legal career. Normally, your first year is spent shadowing more experienced prosecutors before you even become a junior prosecutor in the courtroom. I got six weeks. There simply weren’t enough hands on deck for senior or even junior prosecutors to make every hearing. Still, new recruits weren’t supposed to handle actual jury trials on their own. But, of course, that’s exactly what happened to me. It was a contentious case, an aggressive driving charge involving a police officer in an unmarked car and the impatient driver who was unfortunate enough to tailgate them. Just by looking over the details ahead of the hearing, I could tell it was going to go to trial. It was your classic “he said, she said” case, which left the defense plenty of room to reach for a “not guilty” verdict. This was going to take an expert hand. So, I went to a well-respected senior prosecutor and asked for help. She agreed to prosecute the case and walk me through my first real trial. There was just one problem: On top of being overworked due to the office’s short staffing, she was also eight months pregnant. It wasn’t until one of my fellow trainees told her they’d just watched me select a jury that she realized she forgot to show up for the trial.
I tried my best to stall the proceedings, thinking help would come around the corner any second. But, when the time came to select jurors, I knew I was on my own. One experienced prosecutor did drop by right before the trial started to give me a piece of advice: “Don’t lose. That would be embarrassing.” You do plenty of mock trials in law school, and many of the professors try to hammer home the fact that trials will rarely go exactly as planned. But it’s one thing to be told that in the classroom and another to live the experience firsthand. I went at the defense with everything I had and prayed they couldn’t tell how nervous I was. Then, during the recess just before closing arguments, help arrived, but the majority of the trial was already over. She was very supportive and encouraging, offering me some direct advice about the case. She felt the strongest point I’d made was pointing out that the driver had been riled up enough to yell at a uniformed officer, and she advised me to hinge my final statement on it. I followed her advice and got the conviction. Fifteen years later, the prosecutor and I still laugh about that fateful first trial. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I learned just how important it is to be quick on your feet in a real trial — you can’t just rely on weeks of planning, like in law school. It was an incredible way to kick off my career in earnest, and it was the start of a great friendship with this prosecutor.
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