Today's Terror

Closing argument is one reason people go to law school. The fantasy has it as follows: A client's life hangs in the balance. Through eloquence, wit and penetrating intellect, you save the client's life with words that will echo through the ages. Realty is a sleepless night and stubborn facts.

We will give closing arguments today in a murder case I have been in trial with for the past three weeks. My client is alleged to have shot one woman to death and to have attempted to murder another by shooting her in the chest. The shootings took place during an argument in the client's kitchen. His claim is self-defense.

The stakes are almost as high as the law permits us to wager in a criminal case. If convicted, it is virtually certain the client will die behind bars even if he lives to a ripe old age. The murder alone carries up to 60 years imprisonment. But the state's idea of a plea bargain in this case is obscene. We rejected the state's offer of decades behind bars on a plea. We demanded a jury.

This is where things get hinky.

On the sporting theory of the trial, I should be riding high. Client, co-counsel and I should be high-fiving in the locker room, applying war paint and getting ready to tumble out on the field. Perhaps the client's family can cheer as we enter. The game is on, and it is time to perform. Is this not what a lawyer trains for, decade by decade?

But trial is not a sport. It is not even an athletic competition. The sides are rarely evenly drawn, and the stakes are far higher than those of any game. A woman died in this case; another was injured. Their families sit in the courtroom, tense and respectful of the proceedings. I glance back at them from time to time and know now that my role in this drama is akin to the Devil's. They expect nothing good from me, and, hence, they see my faults highlighted through the prism of their grief. There is nothing I can do or say to them to convey my sorrow over the nature of the proceedings.

But my role is clear in this case. I am to defend a man to the exclusion of the world. His future is in my hands, and for days, I have stood in the well of the court questioning witnesses, trying to blunt the thrust of the state's damning accusations. My client, the state says, killed without justification, and then set out to kill again when all danger had passed. I know the force of the state's case has not been lost on the jurors. I wonder whether what I say will find welcoming ears.

Although lawyers are mere ambassadors of the troubles of others, we can't help but be influenced by the metaphors common in our culture: Lawyers speak of winning cases, although, for the life of me, there is no win in a courtroom steeped in blood: there is only pain, and the avoidance of inflicting yet more pain without sufficient and good cause.

Will I "win" the case we argue today? My ego demands that I do. Lawyers boast of never, or, almost never, losing. A verdict in my client's favor helps make my phone ring: it will foster something like hope in the hearts of others unstrung by fear.

I tried a good case. There is only one question I would not ask again, and that error is but a small part of the record in this case. My adversary was skilled and professional; the judge, although not perfect, was fair. I stormed, fumed, fussed, cajoled and then, finally, when it was clear that I could not bluster my way to the outcome I desired, I settled in to try a difficult case.

In the end, juries try to do the right thing for the right reasons. We place them in the terrifying cauldron of a courtroom and then present searing truths to people unaccustomed to the red hot chaos life often yields.

I did not choose the facts of the case I tried these past few weeks. They were created by others. But I did choose how to question witnesses, what law to rely upon, how best to meld law and fact in the combat of trial to persuade a jury of 12 that my client was justified in the acts leading to the death of another and the injury of yet another.

The outcome? It will soon be out of my hands and in the hands of strangers. Did I choose well? Will I "win"? Did the lawyering in this case matter at all or did the facts merely speak to unbiased minds?

Good questions all, but all dwarfed by the preoccupation that will define the time between now and the time the jury decides the case: Is my client guilty or not guilty? It all comes down to that. At once, I am reduced to impotence and feel what my client feels: terror in the face of the unknown.


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© Norm Pattis is represented by Elite Lawyer Management, managing agents for Exceptional American Lawyers
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