I Sat in On My First Trial Experience, Here Are My Biggest Takeaways

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Today’s blog is a guest post from Mia Severino, Fortress Law Group’s Sales & Marketing Coordinator. Mia shares her thoughts and impressions from her first experience sitting at the trial table throughout an entire jury trial.

I Sat in On My First Trial Experience, Here Are My Biggest Takeaways

It’s easy to develop a deep fascination for criminal justice when you work for a criminal defense law firm, even as someone who doesn’t practice law, such as myself. I came into the position having zero knowledge of law, yet today, I find myself excessively researching relative crime topics and news articles out of pure curiosity. The more matters I began to discuss with clients, the more my interest piqued, and I was patiently awaiting an opportunity to watch a live action criminal trial. That time finally came in July of 2022, and I’m going to share with you my biggest takeaways as a spectator.

The Context

  • The Incident: Our client was the passenger in a vehicle that was stopped for excessively tinted windows. The client was asked to step out of the vehicle and as he was doing so, a small baggie filled with a crystalline substance, later shown to be meth, fell out of his pocket. The client and their belongings were then searched to find two large bags containing over 170 grams of meth in a metal box, the small baggie of meth from their pocket, and $4,000 in cash. The client was also a habitual offender who has had previous altercations with this particular police department and court system.
  • The Charge: The client was indicted on 1 count of Aggravated Trafficking in Drugs. Under Ohio statute, aggravated trafficking means to prepare for shipment, ship, transport, deliver, prepare for distribution, or distribute a controlled substance or a controlled substance analog, when the offender knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the controlled substance or a controlled substance analog is intended for sale or resale by the offender or another person.
  • Our Strategy: Establish reasonable doubt that the client intended to sell the drugs due to the fact that there was no presence of additional street selling tools, such as a scale or baggies. There was no doubt that the client possessed drugs, but possession was not included in the indictment, only aggravated trafficking.
  • The Verdict: The jury found the defendant guilty of Aggravated Trafficking.

Jury Selection Is Imperfect Because Humans Are Imperfect

The jury selection process, formally known as voir dire, lasted for about two hours and involved a series of questions and further examinations from both the defense (us) and prosecution. The counsel asked jurors baseline questions such as, “have you ever been a victim of a crime,” and if a juror responded yes, they would then be asked whether or not that experience would prohibit them from being fair and impartial to the matter at hand. My gripe with the latter question is that it’s tough to consciously be aware of one’s implicit biases, and the amount of “I don’t knows” submitted in response supports that notion. Many people denied that prior experiences or statuses would factor into their decision-making process, however, many others gave an honest yes or were entirely on the fence; those individuals were voted off the jury by counsel. My question here is, how can one really determine whether a juror is giving an honest answer while under examination, and on a deeper note, does that juror truly know that their predisposed biases will not come into play? The process is as refined as it could be, and the glass half full attitude I try to carry makes me want to believe that every selected juror is dedicated to impartiality, but human nature leads me to believe that bias could easily infiltrate a jury, even with the most intensive examination.

Cross Examination is Not for the Weak Minded

The trial, in general, was not something out of a true crime T.V. show like one might expect, but that’s not to say that the witness testimonies didn’t carry a significant amount of drama. Cross examination is the process used by opposing counsel to call on and question witnesses, and it can get intense to say the least. This process is something that nobody, besides seasoned officials, can fully prepare for, even if they’ve been properly advised on the expectations. We called in a witness who was the ex-partner of the defendant, and in full transparency, I was hanging off the edge of my seat for the duration of the cross examination. I carefully observed as the witness was hammered with questions by the prosecuting attorney; a tough show to watch, especially from the defense table. All in all, I held a respect towards the witness for enduring the events that just unfolded before us because it is not an easy task, as the smallest alteration in terminology could drastically change the course of the case.

Trial is Always a Risk

Unfortunately for the defense, the prosecutor was able to persuade the jury that he proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt, convincing the jury that our client was, in fact, trafficking drugs. My boss, defense attorney and owner of the firm, Matthew Bangerter, put up the best defense he could. Alas, his points did not sway the jury, and the verdict was delivered as guilty.

There is an element of risk involved in jury trials, due to the fact that a group of our peers, common individuals, determine the outcome of a defendant’s future. The risks and benefits of a plea deal vs a trial were discussed, but our client was willing to take a chance that unfortunately failed. Matt Bangerter enjoys the challenge of a trial; he’s established a lengthy record of success when it comes to proving his clientele’s innocence. This includes the 2nd trial of his career, a retrial that resulted in not guilty verdicts on 16 counts including aggravated murder. Bangerter’s client in that case stated in a post-trial interview, “although I maintain my innocence, I’m well aware of the risks of a 15-to-life sentence if I lose.” Despite the risk, Matt’s hard work and perseverance led the defense to prevail, and an innocent man regained his freedom.

But at the end of the day… not everybody is found innocent. Matt works hard to cultivate second chances for our clients, but when it comes to trials, and my biggest takeaway from the experience, that second chance is a gamble.