Chuck Turner, a longtime Boston City Counsellor, was convicted last week of taking bribes. He was arrested after the FBI conducted a sting operation, employing one of Turner's associates as an informant. Ronald Wilburn was sent into Turner's office to ask for help obtaining a liquor license. While there, Wilburn slipped Turner $1000 in cash during a handshake, all of which was caught on FBI surveillance video.
There are a couple of noteworthy features of the trial. First, the video is very grainy. So, while it is clear that something changed hands, and that it was almost certainly money, there is no way to tell how much. Secondly, Mr. Wilburn was overtly hostile to the FBI during his testimony. While he generally corroborated the FBI's account of what went down, he greatly resented having been forced to participate in the sting operation and did not try to hide his contempt for the Feds in court.
So, after the Prosecution rested, things did not look good for Chuck Turner. There was, however, some hope that some jurors might have been upset with the way in which the FBI agents conducted themselves. While I rather doubt that any of them would have voted to acquit, I could have envisioned them settling on a verdict centered around minor charges.(Obstruction of justice).
Then Chuck Turner opened his mouth. Despite his attorney begging him not to take the stand, and one supporter literally trying to drag him back to his seat by his suit cuff, Turner insisted on testifying in his own defense. Turner took the stand and proceeded to hem and haw and fail to remember things. He denied small things that had been well-documented and claimed amnesia when convenient. In short, he came across as a smug, contemptuous liar, who believed that he could wiggle out of any situation on the strength of his own charm and guile. Needless to say, the jury didn't buy it.
Any experienced litigator has had a client who just didn't know when to keep his mouth shut. Either the person has insisted on testifying when he shouldn't have, or he insisted on giving a long, convoluted answer to a straightforward question. So, what can be done about a client who insists on talking himself into an adverse verdict?
Typically, such a client has a poor sense about how his testimony will be perceived. Either he simply does not appreciate how he comes across in public, or he fails to anticipate how poorly his style will translate into a courtroom setting. Since many such people are in positions of authority, they are not used to taking directions about message from others. So, how do you convince someone like this to do what's in his own best interest?
This is where videotaped witness preparation can really save the day. Rather than having a hypothetical discussion with your client about what to do on the stand, it is critical to submit the client to a realistic direct and cross examination. Make sure that the attorney you have recruited to act as opposing counsel is very well-versed in your case and really goes after your client. Exploit his weaknesses, trap him in contradictions and let him hang himself.
Once the session is over, review the videotape with your client. In most cases, the witness will quickly come to appreciate his deficiencies on the stand. Where the person continues to be obtuse (or insists he can fix things with a snap of his fingers), the next step is to assemble a small focus group of jury eligible people from the relevant jurisdiction. Show the practice testimony to these subjects and have a moderator lead a discussion about their reactions.
If Chuck Turner's defense team had conducted this simple exercise, I am pretty confident that his lawyers would have been able to convince him not to take the stand at his trial. While he might have still been convicted of some crime, he would not have created a permanent record of himself lying under oath in a court of law.
The lesson: Sometimes it is not enough to tell your client what to expect at trial -- You have to show him.