Somebody sent me a copy of audio which was recorded almost a decade ago at a criminal felony jury trial. It is the audio of my closing argument to the jury in a First Degree Arson Trial in February of 2010. Wow, it brought back memories. Here is the last 11 and a half minutes of it. Listen to how I hand the case over to the jury at the end….. I got that from Gerry Spence.
People ask lawyers all the time: do you ever think your client is guilty? The worst possible scenario as a trial lawyer is to be responsible for defending someone who is actually innocent, and screw something up. This young man was innocent. Yet he was facing 20 years in prison. His family came to me and asked me to save their son. He had done a stupid, ridiculous thing, and had given a false confession to a girl over the telephone, for some reason thinking it would impress her. He bragged that he started a fire which had burned down a big barn, which had been a local mystery up to that point. But he didn’t actually do it. But…. he was caught on a recorded phone conversation stating that he did.
He was charged with first degree arson. I ended up proving to the jury that he had lied about it, and that he was actually innocent. Talk about a difficult task. But I did it. This was the fastest I’ve ever had a jury return a verdict. It took maybe 6 or 7 minutes. This guy/kid could have spent the last decade sitting in prison….
Choosing a lawyer is an important decision. With this audio, you can hear an example of me speaking for somebody in court, in a situation when that individual’s liberty was at stake, and see the end result. Pretty cool.
I haven’t posted in a good while. The reason was that I had been preparing for a particularly contentious criminal jury trial.
I am happy to announce that this afternoon, after three days of trial, we finished closing arguments on the case, and the jury came back with two unanimous verdicts of not guilty. It was probably the most emotionally difficult case I have ever struggled with.
The best part about it was, during my closing argument, I asked the jury, when they went into the jury room to begin deliberations, to pick a foreperson, sit down, and take a vote on whether there was any reasonable doubt. If all hands were up, I asked them to come right back out and deliver a verdict of not guilty.
Apparently that is what they did. They may have deliberated 10-15 minutes. God, what a feeling. It felt so good. I don’t think I have ever wanted to win so bad. And I don’t think I have ever put so much time, effort, and passion into anything.
My client was charged with first degree arson and conspiracy, both felonies, with a sentence of 3 to 25 years. He had always maintained that he was innocent, and damn it felt so good to deliver him back to his family a free man. He is a good guy, and his family had suffered through such a nightmare with the prosecution and accusations. There’s nothing like standing before 12 jurors with somebody’s life and destiny in your hands. It’s the worst time and it’s the best time. Fighting [in the courtroom] for money is one thing. But fighting for someone’s liberty – someone’s child, someone’s father – with their life in your hands….. there’s nothing like it. God, it feels good.
There is a story in the Charleston Daily Mail today titled, “Judge refuses to accept guilty plea from ex-firefighter.” Apparently the defendant was charged with second degree arson for the destruction of a boat dock. According to the assistant prosecutor, it may have been an accident – albeit a reckless one. But recklessness or negligence, doesn’t qualify as “willful or malicious” if there was no intent to set a fire or burn an object – thus giving the prosecutor good reason to plead the case to a destruction of property – a misdemeanor.
But apparently the judge wasn’t having it, and refused to accept the plea. Something that I have noticed in arson cases: the judges’ take them very seriously. When buildings or objects are getting burned in their districts, people pay attention and so do the judges. The judge doesn’t want to be the one who let the defendant out on probation only to have something else burn down.
And being that there is no misdemeanor arson charge, the only lesser-included available is destruction of property – which carries a maximum of one year in jail. Oftentimes, an arson defendant already will have served a considerable amount of time in jail because the bond was most likely set extremely high – or else they have been on home incarceration. The result is that the person will not do much time – and hence, the judge doesn’t want to accept the plea.
But can the judge do that? Yes, if he finds there is no factual basis for the plea. But, is there anything stopping the prosecutor from dismissing the charge and recharging destruction of property? Probably not – unless the judge is going to try the case, which of course he can’t do. In any event, the case would have to be dismissed eventually due to lack of speedy trial.