In every case, even just a simple drug drop case, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Law enforcement witnesses are expected to do far more than just regurgitate the facts of their investigation. (iStock Photo)
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In civil cases, lawyers spend hours on end and hundreds--if not thousands--of dollars to prepare their witnesses for trial. One might say it’s worth every penny when billions of dollars could potentially be at stake. Why witnesses in criminal cases should be treated any differently beats me. Can we even put a price on liberty?
When a person’s freedom stands to be taken away, police officers and prosecutors need to work equally as hard, if not harder, to be prepared for court and trial. And, this doesn’t mean merely having one’s report memorized. We need to know everything there is to know about the case and the particular defendant.
Police and prosecutors also need to understand the social issues surrounding the case. A trial is a complex drama of human nature and what motivates people’s actions, not just the defendant’s. If we don’t understand it ourselves, how can we be prepared to explain it in court and convince the jury that the defendant is still culpable and must be held responsible?
There’s Always More to the Story
In every case, even just a simple drug drop case, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Law enforcement witnesses are expected to do far more than just regurgitate the facts of their investigation. Example: The biggest challenge that law enforcement officers and prosecutors face in gang cases is explaining to the jury why the gang member victim who just got shot by rival gang members doesn’t want to talk. Jurors who aren’t savvy to the customs of gang culture might question this and find doubt where none exists if it is not explained to them.
On a similar note, victims of domestic violence routinely down play or completely recant their original statement to the first responding officers. As a prosecutor, I came to expect that a victim on any given domestic violence case would recant within 24 to 48 hours of their first report to law enforcement. It becomes critical, therefore, in trial to address this phenomenon head on and explain to the jury how love, fear and financial control could lead someone to recant a brutal beating at the hands of his or her spouse.
First responders and experienced detectives can do much to enhance the truth-seeking mission of a criminal trial. Years of experience and responding to hundreds of calls provide a vast resource for prosecutors to tap into. Think about how much you know now compared to your first day on the job. All of your experiences from each and every call over the years have made you an expert in many different types of cases. Unfortunately, in most cases, an officer’s vast experience is unknown and underutilized.
In Search of the Truth
A trial is a search for the truth. No one knows this better than the defendant and his lawyer. Most of the time, the truth is what they’re trying desperately to hide. They can’t wait for the defendant’s wife to get up on the stand and say that she started the fight and he was just defending himself. We need to be equipped to defeat these obstacles head on and the best way to do this is to take the time before trial to strategize.
My last jury trial was a gang-related attempted murder. Before trial, I met three different times with one of the gang detectives on the case. We talked about gangs and gang culture and specifically about this particular gang and its members. We talked about specific photos of some of the gang’s members and prior crime reports involving those members. We talked about individual members and their history in the gang. We even pulled prior case files involving the members of that gang.
Guess what? This was not in preparation for the gang allegation. It wasn’t even the gang that the defendant belonged to. It was the victim’s gang. Why, you ask? Because we had to enlighten the jury as to why this guy, the cousin of the rival gang member who shot at him, would not talk. We had to explain to the jury how, for him, testifying in a case like this would be a death sentence, and therefore, was the last thing he would do.
There’s always more that can be done on direct examination and, in the people’s case, in chief. Vigorous preparation will enable us to circumvent the defense’s tactics before they even have a chance to try. Talk to the prosecutor well in advance of trial and discuss what needs to be done to bolster the truth. Don’t let the defense attorney run away with it.