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December 14, 2010 4:41 PM

First Person: I, the Jury

Posted by Ed Shanahan

Steen, Bruce 2009 Bruce Steen is a McGuireWoods civil litigator with more  than 20 years of trial experience. In August he wound up in an unaccustomed role when he was one of 15 people (12 jurors and three  alternates) picked to decide the fate of Demeatrius Montgomery, who was charged with fatally shooting two Charlotte police officers in 2007.  Steen, who served as foreman during the five-week trial in North Carolina state court, and his fellow jurors ultimately convicted  Montgomery on two counts of murder. (Montgomery's lawyers have said that he will appeal the verdict.) Here, Steen describes the experience--and  what it taught him as a lawyer.

As told to Dimitra Kessenides.

I was in the jury box for about two-and-a-half hours during voir dire. It's amazing how exposed you feel. Some of my colleagues will ask questions that get at very personal things, and you always have an intellectual appreciation for that as a trial lawyer. But until you go through it yourself, it's amazing how much you feel on the spot.

The prosecution asked me some very substantive questions--about a couple of community organizations that I'm involved with, including one that provides legal services to indigent youth, primarily juvenile justice services. They asked me a lot of questions about my attitudes about those issues. By the end of it, I assume [the prosecutor] could conclude that I could at least be fair, that I wasn't some reflexive person who was going to make a judgment based on my own biases. On the other side, the defense attorney asked me a lot about my practice and about whether I'd done any criminal defense work. When I was a young lawyer in Virginia, I had done a number of pro bono, indigent defense cases. By the end of the day, I assume he was comfortable that at least I'd seen both sides of [a case].

One of my mentors when I was young used to say, "Don't trust a lawyer who doesn't trust juries." He meant that if you give the tools to a jury, they'll get it right. The worst thing you can do is condescend to a jury. That became so clear to me in this trial. The jurors that I served with worked hard to get this right. They paid attention for five weeks, and were serious in the way they approached their job. We had long discussions about what the instructions meant. And the only way we could have had those discussions was if we'd listened and understood them.

There were things I kind of knew as a trial lawyer, and had been told when I was being trained, that were really confirmed during this experience. For instance, how important witnesses are. That might sound silly, but the jury members don't really identify with the judge, or with the lawyers. The only person they identify with is the person in the witness box. In this trial it was important for the witness to tell his or her own story and for the lawyers to get out of the way. The worst examinations were when the [lawyers] asked leading questions and we didn't hear enough from the witnesses themselves.

I had a new appreciation for expert witnesses after this trial. There was a DNA expert, and a gunshot expert. These were things outside our own personal experiences. The worst thing you can do is let your expert talk about his or her own qualifications. Next time I'm on trial, I'll try to tease the details out of the expert so that I'm the one bragging about his or her credentials. You take it for granted that experts have impressive credentials and that the jury will be impressed. That's not necessarily so. You have to humanize the expert witness, just like you humanize a regular witness.
 
I also learned that it's a bad idea to waste a jury's time. We all found ourselves, at times, wondering, "Why is this important? Why isn't anyone trying to tie this all together?" You waste a jury's time at your peril. Keep it moving and tie it all together.

Another thing I thought was interesting, as a trial lawyer, was how quickly a jury bonds together and becomes a cohesive unit. You can't talk about what's going on in the moment, so you talk about everything else: your kids, your grandparents, where you grew up, what you like, what you studied in school. That kind of bonding really made the deliberation process a lot smoother than I would have expected. We were comfortable with each other, so we could argue and debate and question each other's logic without insulting or threatening each other. We had lots of debate in the jury room. At the end we were able to come to a consensus really quickly.

When the prosecution and the defense both rested, and the judge said, "Okay, folks, this case now belongs to you," that was an amazing feeling. We decided that we were going to try to re-create the story based on the evidence. We deliberated for the rest of the day--that was the point where we could exhale and say, 'it's over.' It's a release, but you don't want the emotions to overwhelm you. We went home, came back the next day, and reached our verdict at the end of that day.

When I had to sign the verdict forms, my hand was shaking. When we delivered our verdict, that was very emotional: guilty on both counts, first-degree premeditated murder. The courtroom was absolutely packed. It was a very intimidating environment to be in. Then the judge went right to the sentencing phase. The prosecution called five or six family members, and the chief of police. We were listening to this, not far from these victims' family members. That was as emotional as it gets.

We never had a chance to say goodbye to each other. We never had a chance to process what we'd just been through. It was weird. I remember driving to the office the next day, and thinking, I don't have to go to the courthouse today. I won't see my new friends.

A slightly shorter version of this account appears in the current issue of The American Lawyer.

 

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Great column. I really enjoyed reading it and appreciate that you are succinct and to the point. I am also a trial lawyer and have always wanted to serve on a jury.

In my role as a trial presentation consultant, I constantly monitor the proceedings and try to follow (and share my thoughts) from a juror's perspective. This valuable insight validates the fact that we need to make the trial experience as efficient and effective as possible. Thanks for sharing!

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