Will the defendant testify or not testify?

July 6, 2013

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Good afternoon:

I write regarding whether the defendant should testify.

I advised my clients not to testify, unless there was some specific reason why I believed they had to testify. That reason typically would involve testifying about something that the jury would not otherwise know unless the client testifies. This is a common occurrence is self-defense cases and why most lawyers will say that a client must testify in such a case.

As Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei said yesterday, the use of deadly force in self-defense is unlawful unless the defendant reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering serious injury when he used deadly force. The reasonableness requirement means that the defendant’s conduct must be evaluated objectively by comparing his conduct to the conduct of a reasonable person in the same situation.

The jury of 6 women, 5 of whom are mothers, will decide whether the defendant acted reasonably.

The defendant is the only person who can tell them whether he believed he was in such danger when he shot Trayvon Martin. According to various witnesses who have testified, he described a situation to them that, if true, probably would objectively constitute such a danger. For the past year, his lawyer, Mark O’Mara has been aggressively selling the defendant’s story on national television and waiving the two bloody cell phone photographs of the back of the defendant’s head and his face as proof that the defendant acted reasonably. I think the national media has uncritically accepted O’Mara’s sales job and shamelessly promoted it.

The critical question, however, is whether the 6 women, 5 of whom are mothers, believe what the defendant told others. They are not required to believe anything he said. I doubt they will believe him, given his many contradictory statements, implausible claims, and the forensic evidence, particularly the DNA evidence, which proves that Trayvon Martin did not hit him 20-30 times in the face, grab his head and repeatedly slam it into a concrete sidewalk, or attempt to smother him by placing his hands over the defendant’s nose and mouth.

I believe the prosecution has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant provoked the encounter with Trayvon Martin by following him in a vehicle and then on foot after Trayvon attempted to elude him. He hunted him down and attempted to restrain him contrary to a request by the police dispatcher not to follow him and he never identified himself or explained why he was restraining him. Under these circumstances, Trayvon Martin was entitled to use reasonable force to defend himself, escalating to deadly force when the defendant pulled out his gun. Therefore, Trayvon Martin used lawful force to defend himself and the defendant’s use of force was unlawful.

If he were my client, I would tell him that this is my assessment.

If he responded with, “What about my mother identifying me as the person who screamed?” I would say she did not do so unequivocally. Sybrina Fulton did and she was credible.

I would tell him that he gets to make the call regarding whether to testify. Given my assessment that the jury is going to convict him, I would also tell him that his only chance to avoid conviction would be to testify and persuade those 6 women, 5 of them mothers, that they should not convict him.

I would explain the following information.

The burden of proof in all criminal cases in this country is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime charged. The defendant is presumed innocent throughout the trial and the jury must find him “not guilty” unless the prosecution overcomes the presumption of innocence by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The term “beyond a reasonable doubt” is generally defined as such a doubt as would exist in the mind of a reasonable person after fully and fairly considering all of the evidence or lack of evidence. The prosecution is not required to prove guilt beyond all doubt, just beyond a reasonable doubt. Generally, a reasonable doubt is a doubt for which a reason exists, as opposed to a speculative doubt or a mere suspicion. The Florida instruction states that a person is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt if they have an abiding belief in the truth of the charge. An abiding belief is a long lasting belief. The idea is that a juror is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt if they are sure that they will not change their mind sometime in the future due to some doubt they have about the strength of the evidence.

The definition of reasonable doubt is circular, which frustrates jurors who expect and want reasonable doubt quantified. For example, preponderance of the evidence, which is the burden of proof in a civil case, is defined as proving that a proposition is more likely so than not so or supported by more than 50% of the evidence. There is no equivalent percentage of certainty used to define reasonable doubt. I believe most trial lawyers and judges would agree that it’s possible that different juries hearing the same case could reach different conclusions. This is why attorney voir dire during jury selection and the use of cause and peremptory challenges to select a jury are so critically important.

Our legal system guards and protects the sanctity of the jury room and juror deliberations. A jury is never required to explain or justify its verdict. As a result, a jury actually gets to decide what constitutes reasonable doubt, even though they are never told that they have this power. The jury is a reflection of the community and it acts as the conscience of the community when it decides whether the prosecution has proved the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

I would tell him that if he can express his humanity and touch their hearts, he has a chance at manslaughter.

I would also tell him that he must tell the truth without any bullshit like he uttered on the Hannity Show.

He must admit when he lied, to whom he lied, and why he lied.

He must convince them that he acted out of fright, not anger.

I think he’s going to testify for all the wrong reasons because he has always been able to lie his way out of trouble.

Ain’t going to work this time.

I have one final reason for believing he will testify. His lawyers did not voir dire the prospective jurors on his right to remain silent and not testify. I always did that in my cases to make sure the jurors understood that they could not use his silence against him by presuming he had something to hide.


Liberty’s last defender

March 24, 2013

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I write today about the role of the criminal defense attorney in our legal system.

They are liberty’s last defender.

Given a list of possible answers, most people probably would not select that answer as the correct one.

I live in a county in western Kentucky where multi-generational institutional corruption in the legal system has effectively denied legal and equitable remedies to people harmed by corporate wrongdoing and defendants in criminal cases know that they better plead guilty, even if they are innocent, to avoid conviction and long sentences of imprisonment. This is a place where people know that it’s a waste of time and money to sue the rich and a person convicted of a nonviolent crime gets sentenced to the maximum term of imprisonment, if they go to trial, and probation, if they plead guilty.

No one believes that a person who goes to trial will be found not guilty. Outcomes are rigged and people know it.

An acquaintance I met while teaching at the law school, practices law in southern Illinois. She told me that the law firm where she works refuses to take any cases across the Ohio River in Kentucky because the Kentucky courts follow their own unwritten laws rather than the Constitution and the laws of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Criminal defense attorneys here do little more than collect big retainers while promising a vigorous and diligent defense only to fall on their knees facilitating plea bargaining and guilty pleas. Saddled with large unmanageable caseloads, public defenders survive by persuading their clients to plead guilty. Exculpatory evidence is routinely withheld from the defense and police officers lie with impunity. In a system where even the innocent are presumed guilty of some criminal misconduct that they got away with, everyone understands that when you get busted, you’re busted. There is no recourse to pleading guilty.

Rock the boat and you are asking for trouble. In this environment, whistleblowers are an endangered species and the only people who have liberty are people with money, lots of money.

An independent, tough and in-your-face criminal defense bar would never have allowed this systemic corruption to take root and overwhelm the legal system.

Diligent and hard working criminal defense attorneys have the knowledge and the capacity to expose corruption and force the police, prosecutors and judges to play by the rules.

I was a criminal defense attorney for 30 years and was proud to call myself and my brothers and sisters in the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Liberty’s Last Defender.

When you think of criminal defense lawyers, never forget Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) famous words:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

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