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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trial Strategy can be as much about When as What

Two Defendants, Two Trials

As followers of The Jury Box Blog know, I have been blogging and tweeting regularly about the trials of Michael and Carolyn Riley, who were both accused of murdering their four-year-old daughter, Rebecca, by administering to her dangerously high doses of ADHD medicine, and then refusing to seek medical attention when she fell deathly ill.

Originally, the pair was scheduled to be tried together. Shortly before jury selection was scheduled to begin, defense counsel made a motion for separate trials, on the grounds that each was likely to implicate the other in mounting a defense. The district attorney did not object and the judge granted the request, recognizing the potential conflict of interest.

The district attorney was then faced with a new set of tasks. Rather than convincing one jury that the couple acted in concert, he had to convince one jury that Carolyn was responsible and then a completely different jury that Michael was responsible.

Who should go first?

Facing the prospect of successive trials, the DA had at his disposal one strategic lever. He got to decide the order in which the defendants would be tried. Before reading further, consider what you would have done? Who goes first?

The DA decided to try Carolyn first, followed by Michael. I think this was a wise strategy (and not just because it worked). At the time, I remember thinking how shrewd this was. Here's why:

Despite best efforts to select jurors in the second trial who are not informed about what happened in the first trial, it is impossible to do so with any confidence. Therefore, the DA had to think about the consequences of the first verdict on the second trial. The first step in the process is to consider the relative culpabilities of the two defendants.

Carolyn Riley is something of an enigma. She seems emotionally detached and not especially bright. There were times during recorded interviews when she didn't seem to really understand what was going on. While Carolyn certainly was not as caring towards her children as one would have hoped, she did not seem to have the mean streak that characterized Michael's personality. In many ways, she seemed to be in fear of her husband. Michael Riley had even been forced by court order to leave their family home at a previous location.

While it might have been a long-shot, it was not out of the question for Carolyn's defense team to mount an insanity defense. Who knows whether her kids were actually mentally ill in any way, but Carolyn clearly had some serious cognitive and emotional problems. So, while Carolyn seems to have actually performed more physical acts that contributed to Rebecca's death, she cut a more sympathetic figure than did her husband, Michael.

Consequences of First Trial on Second Jury

As a result of these factors, it seemed to be a safer bet to secure a conviction against Michael than against Carolyn. With this in mind, it definitely made sense to try Carolyn first. Consider the possible outcomes of Carolyn's trial. If she had been found not-guilty, the jury in Michael's trial would have felt particularly compelled to hold someone responsible for the senseless tragedy of Rebecca's death. If Carolyn had been found guilty of some lesser offense (as she was, in the end), the jury could certainly find room to decide that Michael was even more at fault. If Carolyn had been found guilty of first-degree murder, Michael's jury might have reasoned that he was at least as responsible and that fairness required the same verdict for him. So, trying Carolyn first would not interfere with the prosecution of Michael and might even help the case.

On the other hand, trying Michael first might have posed some problems for the prosecution against Carolyn. Had Michael been found not-guilty, Carolyn's jury would have likely considered it completely unfair to convict her of something for which her abusive husband got off scot-free. This dynamic pops up a lot in criminal cases. When an accomplice turns state's evidence and gets a cushy deal, a jury is sometimes reluctant to convict the defendant of anything too serious, on the grounds that the outcomes for the two are unfairly disparate. Jurors often don't even realize that they are applying such a "relative justice" metric.

Even if Michael Riley were tried first and convicted, Carolyn's trial team would play up the degree of dominance he exerted over the family. A juror who was looking for a reason to show mercy to Carolyn could seize on Michael's conviction as justification for leniency with respect to Carolyn. Since the "real bad guy" has already been convicted and Rebecca's murder will not go unpunished, a juror would be able to more easily justify (to herself and fellow jurors) going easy on Carolyn.

Applying Lessons Learned

It is, of course, easy to look brilliant playing Monday morning quarterback. The DA did, in fact, try Carolyn first. The defense never raised the issue of Carolyn's own mental state. The Commonwealth secured a conviction on Second Degree Murder. The subsequent trial of Michael Riley was quite unremarkable, relying on similar tactics as had been used unsuccessfully in Carolyn's trial. The two main defense tactics were to contest the Coroner's conclusion that Rebecca died from the drug overdose, rather than the pneumonia from which she was suffering, and pinning as much blame as possible on the Tufts staff psychologist who had prescribed Rebecca's medicine without conducting a thorough evaluation of the child. The major flaw in this approach was its failure to address the severe neglect of Rebecca in her final hours, as she begged for help while dying in her own home. At some level, I don't think the jurors cared as much about what killed her as they did about how her parents just let her die because they couldn't be bothered to get her medical care.

The outcomes of these cases, however, were far from a certainty. The DA did a good job, including the decision to try the defendants in the strategically sensible order. There is an important lesson here. Procedural decisions can have important strategic consequences. They should not be made lightly, or based solely on convenience.

When things go wrong with a pharmaceutical, it often triggers a whole series of lawsuits. A plaintiffs' attorney might have several cases against the same company. In addition to deciding on the best venue for bringing the suits, the lawyer should also think hard about the order in which she wants to bring the cases.

There is a high-profile case developing up here in Massachusetts, involving a high school student who hung herself after prolonged bullying by classmates. Criminal charges have been filed against nine different students, some of whom are charged as adults. The DA will have an interesting dilemma with respect to the order in which to prosecute these cases. Not all of the defendants are charged with the same crimes (a couple of boys are charged with statutory rape) and they seemed to have directed varying degrees of hostility towards the victim. It will be interesting to see the order in which the DA decides to proceed.

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