36 Minutes

By Mark McBride

The phone rang at about 10:00 a.m.  It was Friday morning, December 17, 2010, and a court clerk was on the phone telling me that a jury had reached a verdict.  Jen and I had just finished a trial which had lasted 7 days in Compton.  We finished the case the afternoon before.  The jury did not deliberate that afternoon, but was sent home to return the next morning, the 17th, to begin deliberating.

When the clerk called me, I thought to myself, “Wait!  This isn’t good.  The Court ordered them back at 9:15 to begin deliberating!  This can’t be!

I drove to the courthouse as quickly as I could.  My heart was racing.  It always does when I get word that a jury has returned a verdict.  Jen and I had been placed on 1-hour call by the clerk, and as we drove to the courthouse, we were talking with each other on our cell phones and speculating about what the verdict could be.  How could they reach a verdict so fast in a case which had taken 7 days?

I thought to myself:  “45 minutes?  That’s how long they took to deliberate?  What?  You gotta’ be kiddin’ me!  Oh, man, this is no good.”

When we got to the courthouse, we checked in, and eventually the Court ordered the jury to be brought in.  I have seen this happen before, and the same two things always happen to me:

1.  My mind begins to slow down, and I say a silent prayer in my heart (not that the verdict be not guilty, but that the verdict be just and fair); and

2. In slow motion, I see the foreperson hand the verdict forms to the bailiff, who then hands them to the Clerk, and he or she begins reading, “We, the People of the State of the California, in the case of [insert Defendant’s name here] . . .”

NOT GUILTY!

The verdict was not guilty as to our client!

He was free; the case was over.  In criminal law, that’s called “walking your client,” as in, you have just walked your client out the door.  Jen cried a bit, and I was in shock.  Total shock.  We both hugged and kissed our client.  This is about as emotional as I get in life.  In my personal life, I get emotional, but, in that situation, there’s still a sense of some control, and I generally know what’s going to happen before the tears come.  In a jury trial, however, when you finish your closing argument, and when the DA gives his or her rebuttal closing argument, the case is totally out of your hands.  It is in the hands of the jury, and there is a complete sense of loss of control.
In every closing argument I give, I tell the jury that I trust them, and that I need their help, and that I need their courage, and that I need their internal strength.  I tell them that I need their leadership, and that every one of them, no matter who they are, has immense dignity and worth and is just as important as every other juror on the panel.  I tell them that “the carpenters in this group are just as important as the brain surgeons in this group,” that the woman are just as important as the men, and the folks who aren’t that articulate are just as important as the jurors who are well spoken.  And I mean all these words.  I do trust juries.  It is the rare, rare occasion during my experience as a private criminal defense lawyer when a jury has rendered a verdict which totally blew me away or which was something completely unexpected.

As for this recent verdict, while we were waiting for the jury to file in, the clerk indicated to us that the jury began deliberating at 9:20, and that they buzzed with a verdict at 9:56.  36 minutes.  My, my, my . . .

It will be a moment I will never forget.  I remember it pretty well, but am still stunned by it.  What I do remember is, after the not guilty verdict was read, I closed my criminal procedure book because I was prepared to make an oral motion that my client stay out on bail pending sentencing in the event that he was found guilty.  That’s what I remember most — that and the hugs Jen and I shared with our client over and over.

In closing, I want to thank my “partner in crime,” Jennifer, for co-counseling this case with me.  I learned so much from her, and I do every day.  She is such a spectacular lawyer.  There will be other trials, and each one will be, as the judge said in this recent “not guilty” case, a journey indeed.

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