Understanding Competing Goals During Trial Can Help Win Your Case

I am in the middle of a jury trial in federal court this week, and I obviously can’t say anything about it, other than to say it is one of the biggest I’ve ever tried.

I am writing this post as a “note to self” more than anything else, because every time I get to trial I realize how important the competing motivations of the prosecution, the court (i.e., the judge), and the defense are to the eventual outcome of the case.  In summary, the prosecution wants to present the evidence flawlessly, the defense wants to defend the client’s interests, and the court wants to protect the record.

A successful prosecution involves marshalling all of the available evidence together, and coordinating with law enforcement, victims, and (unfortunately) political influences to present the evidence in a manner that will be coherent and believable to the jury.  This can be a large and expensive logistical burden, and the nitnoid details of putting the case together can sometimes interfere with a prosecutor’s strategic legal thinking.

Because the burden of proof is always on the prosecution to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the defense is oftentimes afforded the opportunity for more strategy.  One strategy may be to scatter the seeds of doubt throughout the prosecution’s case by going after every witness, attacking all of the forensics, and generally wreaking havoc.  Another strategy may be to pinpoint one weak area and concentrate defense efforts to ensure one element can’t be shown (the stop was without probable cause, they had sex, but it was consentual, etc.).

Finally, in trial one of the judge’s main concerns is to ensure that an adequate “record” of the proceedings is produced.  After the trial, physically the record is a big stack of paper consisting of the pleadings, the exhibits, and the trial transcript.  This record is all that history will have to reconstruct the trial, but more importantly the record is all the appellate court will have if any issues are taken up on appeal.  Judges do not like to be overturned for making incorrect legal decisions.  This is not necessarily because of their ego, but because when a case is returned from the appellate court it must be retried or reconsidered, and therefore for the reasons of judicial economy it is much better to do it right the first time.  This is why most good judges move at a deliberate pace once a trial is finally underway, slowly making sure that counsel have an opportunity to raise any legitimate issues, and stopping the trial if necessary to explore the latest law on said issues.

These three goals, although different, do not necessarily “compete,” as the title of this post suggests.  But understanding these goals helps to define the “box” that a defense counsel is working in, so that it may be easier to think outside of it to zealously represent the client.