Friday, May 06, 2005

Courtroom Rhetoric Fit for a Stage

Pals, Centurions, and Yokels:

My apologies for the late post. Wednesday afternoon, I completed 13 days of jury duty on a federal criminal case that involved conspiracy, intrigue, and more courtroom drama than Judge Judy offers the casual couch potato viewer. Now, I know that jury duty is our responsibility as citizens, and I do not wish to imply at any point during this post that I didn't take my responsibility seriously. In fact, I and my fellow jurors took our roles very seriously; the defendants' lives were going to be greatly affected by the outcome of our deliberations. These men had families who would smile at us from the courtroom pews. Their children took a day off from school to attend one day of testimony. The defendants, themselves -- save for one -- appeared beaten down, tired, resigned to losing.

Amidst the hefty gravity were moments of absolute hilarity caused by the rhetorical choices of a few of the attorneys.
At one point during a cross examination that lasted ... oh, about 7 hours ... the attorney who obviously had a "past" with a particular law enforcement officer -- er, uh, detective -- tried his darndest to discredit the detective's ability to decipher some financial statements. Things got ugly. The attorney hurled questions at the detective faster than a pitching machine gone wild. But the detective was ready. Somehow, he managed to juggle the attorney's questions without losing face or his composure. In fact, he even smiled a couple of times. The attorney didn't appreciate these gestures, and eventually, he lost his stamina to continue the line of questioning, which ended shortly after the attorney pointed to the word "assets" on a tax return and "inadvertently" called the detective "a--h---." 'Twas an accident, n'est-ce pas? Haven't we all, especially in times of great stress, slipped and said a word that sort of sounded like the word we really wanted to use? In any event, the attorney's word choice made us all laugh. It was the only time everyone was on the same side.

Which brings me to a more serious observation about what I saw. As I sat and listened to the cross examinations by both the defense and prosecuting attorneys, I reminded myself that their jobs were to discredit the other side's witnesses. In some cases, I found the dialectic fascinating. But at times, I clearly saw attorneys -- white and black attorneys -- using the language of "privilege and power" to intimidate and mock a few witnesses -- all black -- whose life experiences were never marked by any sort of privilege. I wasn't impressed. In fact, I thought about how illegitimate and illogical the whole process seemed to be. How demeaning and, well, racist it clearly was. I reached my fill of some of the attorney's rhetorical mishmashing before the closing arguments even began. There was so much said that didn't have a thing to do with the evidence of the case.

Colleagues, I have friends who are attorneys, and I value the work they do. All of them do their jobs with integrity, carrying out their responsibilities with respect for the law and their clients. Not all of the attorneys on the case I observed used the courtroom as their stage. But those who did should be ashamed of themselves. I wonder. How many innocent people go to jail because they can't answer the rapid-fire-meant-to-confuse questions asked by prosecutors? How many criminals dodge the bullet because their defense attorneys know how to "talk the talk"? How many jurors draw conclusions based on eloquent or firey (or firey but eloquent) opening and closing arguments rather than the strength of the evidence between them?

For many reasons, I'm glad I did my civic duty, but I'm especially glad I served as a juror because it opened my eyes to a type of rhetoric far different than what I expected in a court of law and far different than the type of argument and philosophical dialectic I enjoy reading and teaching. My job in the writing center or the classroom has, indeed, been enriched by this experience, but if I may borrow a few of the words of one of the attorneys, I'd rather eat a flaming porcupine than witness a criminal trial again.

Dawn Fels
Juror No. 12


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