We know the importance of presenting our cases as stories to the jury. In 1996 Dr. Daniel Gross published an article in the Trial Diplomacy Journal about it based on Gerry Spence’s defense in the Ruby Ridge trial in Idaho. The article deals with the place of storytelling in the courtroom. It notes that scholars claim that a narrative is the essence of human symbolic activity because humans are characteristically storytellers. The article notes the importance of the timing of summation. It is the last communication event the jury hears before deliberation. Research regarding primacy – recency supports the importance of recency effect and summation is the last thing the jury hears before deliberation.
Ruby Ridge was a location near Naples, Idaho where there was an eleven-day siege by the United States Marshalls and the FBI of the family of Randy Weaver as well as a friend, Kevin Harris. It resulted in a shoot out and deaths of a deputy Marshall, Randy’s wife, the Weaver’s son and the family dog. It was ended by negotiation and followed by a variety of charges against Weaver and Harris including first degree murder.
Spence told the story and the Randy Weaver case about a conspiracy – a conspiracy in which all members of the jury were characters depicted as potential victims of the federal government or the new Gestapo. They killed the mother and shot a boy and who knows what they will do next if they are not stopped.
In the Ruby Ridge case the theme of the closing narrative was a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The general focus was that all citizens of the United States must honor the Constitution and protect liberty from attack. Spence told the jury: “That’s why the Constitution was made.” His argument was that his client Weaver had been entrapped by the very individuals who had sworn to uphold the Constitution. He challenged the jurors to be vigilant and preserve “justice and truth in tje future only for this country, but for the Weaver family.” He claimed the case was a “watershed case” and that the juror’s grandchildren were going to be part of the victory. Thus, all Americans were included in Spence’s closing narrative conspiracy theme.
Spence began his argument with “I want to tell you a story.” In this story Dr. Gross notes that Spence’s closing narrative contained three categories of characters: The perpetrators, the victims and the narrator\lawyer. The perpetrators included members of the FBI and government officers involved. The victims included Weaver and members of his family including his wife, his son as the family dog. Spence played himself as the narrator. He told the jury that he, along with members of the jury, would carry on something “permanent, magnificent and lasting” while depicting himself as a country lawyer.
He depicted Weaver is someone who had, like everybody else, used bad judgment. For example, during the argument he said to the jury:
“We are all guilty of using poor judgment. When I get through here, Imaging, this is my wife, , over here, the one who smiled at me, would you just stand up Imaging? I want the jury to see you. We’ve been married for a long time. When I get home, she’s going to say to me you used poor judgment. You shouldn’t have had me stand up like that, and she’s going to say a lot of other things about my poor judgment. But that does not mean that I’m a criminal.”
He included short anecdote narratives to illustrate his theme and his claim Weaver had been set up by the authorities:
“I will tell you what it’s like. It’s like if there is a cop that wants to get you. You know in a little town in cop wants to get you and you stop at a stoplight. The cop runs into the back of the car . . Now it’s his fault. You were stopped properly, but what does he do? He charges you with everything but the kitchen sink.”
He noted that while Weaver may have used bad judgment, the federal agencies involved used grossly bad judgment by violating the Constitution and all the laws of the state of Idaho and then his wife and his son plus even the family dog.
His selection of the phrase: the “cop who wants to get you.” and the anecdote supported his theme. He used phrases like “we” which included Spence, the jurors and everyone other than the government.
His summation was characterized by its overall simplicity despite the length of 2 ½ hours. He ended the “watershed case” by telling the jury it was in the hands of the jurors. He told them that:
“Justice and truth in the future for not only this country but this family is in your hands.”
Harris was acquitted of all charges, and Weaver was subsequently acquitted of all charges except for the original bail condition violation for the arms charges and for having missed his original court date. He was fined $10,000 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He was credited with time served plus an additional three months. He was then released.
Words can be powerful. When events are described as a story, they are compelling as well as powerful. The lawyer’s role is to see the case as a big picture and identify the primary positive as well as negative driving issues. As the story teller it is his or her job to then create a simple, overall narrative of the occurrence told from the perspective of their client’s claim and not told as a chronology. Nor is it a recitation of detail. It is not a summary of evidence. It is a story. A story about what happened that was an injustice to our client.
It requires a very different perspective of presentation that we were taught in law school. That’s because we were taught people reason to conclusions by summarizing the evidence and deciding the most logical or weightier side. But, science has shown that’s not how they decide. People form stories in their minds with a story that has a beginning, middle and end. They decide moral issues of who was right and who was wrong. They form impressions about the characters and the facts, but in story form because that’s how human beings are hard wired. So, let’s tell the jury our client’s story if we want to win our case.