Trying to Learn: A Jury Story
My recent jury trial experience reminded me of several things that all attorneys and clients would be well-advised to consider when embarking upon a trial. These things are especially important to the client who will be handling a trial pro se………but first decide if handling your trial pro se is a good idea. Now let’s move forward…
1. Prepare your facts carefully. Check, document, and double-check. Many eyes and ears will be watching and listening to what you present. And be sure to get the critical facts correct.
2. Read the pattern jury instructions. The jury instructions are the law the judge will read to the jury at the close of all the evidence and arguments. Think of the jury instructions as a checklist for each claim or defense in your case. Reviewing the jury instructions before or at the time you file your lawsuit can be a valuable tool in framing your issues and determining what evidence and witnesses you will need to prove your case in a convincing manner.
3. Choose your claims and defenses wisely. In layman’s terms, pick your battles. Do not overreach and pursue claims or defenses that may strain your credibility with the jury or the judge. Leave the minor stuff at home or at the office on the shelf where it belongs. The trial should be about hashing out the most critical issues. Remember: at the end of the case you have to ask the jury (or a judge, in a bench trial) for what you want.
4. Prepare your witnesses for testimony. Identifying and working with exhibits, details of testimony, relevant portions of prior statements, voice, and demeanor are but a few of the important aspects of effectively presenting your witness. Be sure your witnesses speak loudly and clearly so the jury can hear and follow what is being said. Take the time to meet with your witness prior to trial—-I typically like to prepare my witnesses no more than two weeks prior to trial so as to minimize anxiety.
5. Give the jury what they want…for the most part. If the jury, while deliberating, asks to see exhibits and evidence you should allow this unless there is a SERIOUS problem with doing so. And if there is a serious problem with doing so it should have been dealt with previously via pre-trial motions or a bench conference with the judge. Refusing the jury’s request could be viewed negatively by the jury even if you do not intend such.
6. Do not take the charge conference for granted. If anything, you should prepare for the jury instruction/charge conference just as much as you do for your presentation of evidence and closing argument. The jury instructions are the law the judge will provide to the jury and you want to be sure the correct, relevant instructions are provided for your case. On a related note the jury verdict form is of critical importance as the issues the jury will be asked to answer can mean the life or death of your case. Do legal research if you believe you will need special jury instructions that are not set out in the North Carolina Pattern Jury Instructions. Notify your trial judge early in the case that you will be seeking to use special jury instructions and/or special issues on the jury verdict form. Prepare proposed jury instructions and verdict sheets for these “special” situations. This is important stuff….
7. Stipulate to order. Many facts, items, and other details can and should be handled in a well-drafted pre-trial order that contains stipulations. Stipulations are written agreements on certain facts (ex: the parties stipulate there was a valid contract for the purchase of a vehicle in which the Plaintiff agreed to pay $300.00 per month for 36 months). Sure some attorneys and litigants are unwilling to stipulate to much of anything but it is worth the ask. To the extent you can enter into stipulation with the opposing party you help streamline the issues of the case and possibly make the jury’s job easier. A trial should boil down to a jury or judge deciding contested, relevant, and significant issues. Minutia need not apply
A trial can be a trying (excuse the pun) experience but you can minimize the angst by being prepared. Preferably you should consult with a lawyer well before the trial and even in advance of any lawsuit being filed. Hopefully the above lessons help you in your next trial or just in evaluating your case. However, if your head is spinning from reading this post and you are in need of help with your case contact an experienced lawyer………sooner rather than later.