Fighting for Clients the Right Way Can Lead to Bruised and Bloody Knuckles
How a Desire to Focus in Criminal Law and To Be Mentored by Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys Changed My Future
My knuckles were bruised and a bit bloody. It wasn’t from a fight, or from working on an engine block, it was from preparing my first ever cross-examination in a jury trial… only 3 weeks after joining the Criminal Defense Team. More on that later.
Using my hands was a very necessary part of my upbringing. I was raised in a small town in southern Indiana just outside of Santa Claus where performing maintenance work was commonplace for me, even as a young boy. Our family owned a large grain farm and I began working on that farm as soon as I was old enough to see over the steering wheel of a tractor. I became a jack of all trades – and master of none. Electrical work? Yeah, I dabble. Plumbing? I might be able to figure it out. Hanging dry wall? I’ve made it work. However, my knowledge in all those areas was very limited. Ask me to build a house and it would most assuredly result in one pathetic structure. Dabbling in a lot of areas doesn’t make me an expert.
After I graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington as both an undergraduate and then as a law student, I had an important decision to make. For two years during law school I had been working for an experienced and well known general practice lawyer. I was being groomed to take over his practice. Family law, personal injury, contract law, criminal law, real estate law and pretty much anything that would walk in his door – that was my future if I took over his practice, and by all counts it was going to be very lucrative. However, I knew I would never master any single area of law if that was the future I chose. I would also be practicing alone.
When I heard that the Criminal Defense Team was looking for a talented young lawyer to join their team, I pursued that opportunity. When I learned that the partners were interested in mentoring their young lawyers to become the best criminal defense lawyer to fight for our clients, I knew I had to have the courage to readjust my future. I left behind the law practice that I had been groomed to take over for a shot at working with the Criminal Defense Team. The partners in the firm hired me and immediately began teaching me criminal defense their way – the right way.
Now, back to my bruised and bloody knuckles. Within days of joining the team, Andy Baldwin – the founding partner of the firm – asked me if I would want to try a felony jury trial with him just three weeks later. He also told me that I would not just be a bystander, but rather would be delivering the closing argument and cross-examination of the lead detective. The head of the law firm could have asked any of the more-experienced lawyers to go to trial with him, but he chose me. What an opportunity to learn from a lawyer who had practiced for more than two decades. However, what happens if I blew it? I was raised to not back down to challenges, so I embraced the opportunity, even though I had never participated in a jury trial in any capacity, let alone as a lawyer.
This was a felony case where the prosecutor was offering a very fair deal, but our client maintained his innocence. I quickly learned that the attitude of the lawyers in our firm is very different than most lawyers who dabble in criminal defense. Rather than try and talk our client into taking the deal, the lawyers in the firm told our client that he could win if it went to trial – but that there would always be a risk. A plea would be the easier route but advising the client to fight the charges to trial if he was innocent or the prosecutor couldn’t prove their case was the right thing to do.
The lawyers in the firm spent time brainstorming the case together and teaching me the firm’s distinct method for cross-examination and then showed me how to apply that technique to the facts in our case. The day before the trial Andy and I spent a considerable amount of time perfecting that cross examination – and bloodying my knuckles.
The investigation that led to the charges being filed against our client had a lot of problems. For example, police officers had failed to knock on the doors of other units in the condominium complex where the crime was alleged to have taken place. Had they done so, they may have located a witness who would contradict the accuser’s story. My cross examination was to begin with three firm, loud knocks on the counsel table, “knock, knock, knock”, followed by a long pause, followed by the question “Knocking on doors can be an important part of an investigation, isn’t that right officer?” Seemed easy enough. However, Andy was not happy with my practice run. “The first 30 seconds of a cross-examination can make or break the entire cross. You must draw blood quickly and capture the jury’s attention. Try again.”
Andy told me that my knocking on the table was too loud. Then too soft. Then too quick. Then too slow. As my knuckles began to bruise I asked if we could just fake the knocks on the table while we practiced. Andy said “only when you get it right.” We must have practiced my cross 30 times that afternoon. By the time Andy was finally happy with the way things were flowing, my knuckles were bleeding, as if I had been on the farm tightening down bolts in the grain bin. I was finally ready for my first jury trial.
At trial the judge looked at our counsel table and quietly asked: “does the defense have any cross-examination?” I looked at the judge and then knocked three times on the counsel table while sitting next to our client, pausing for several seconds before standing up and asking questions of the detective. Just like we had practiced. My knocks on the table grabbed the jury’s attention and garnered looks of bewilderment from the prosecuting attorney. I then used the cross-examination techniques that all the lawyers in the firm had hammered into me over my first few weeks on the job. Thankfully, my cross-examination effectively exposed the inadequacy of the investigation. Andy sat back and watched me confront the experienced detective and later told me that he felt like a proud dad as he watched me dismantle the detective on the stand.
After closing arguments, the jury stepped out to deliberate and 34 short minutes later we were told there was a verdict. As we awaited the reading of that verdict, time seemed to stand still. Then I heard those magic words, “Not Guilty” on all counts.
I have tried more juries since that first trial and have been mentored the whole time by all the lawyers in the firm. I am proud that our entire firm focuses on criminal law. I know that I shouldn’t build a house just because I dabble in plumbing and electrical work if I want to build the best house. I also know that the best criminal defense lawyers focus their entire practice in criminal law if they want to build the best defense and receive the best outcome for their clients. My advice to anyone in criminal trouble is to hire experts who practice exclusively in criminal law and lawyers who are willing to fight. Our firm absolutely fights for our clients. I know it firsthand and have the bloody knuckles to prove it.