Ruby Ridge Idaho is the location of an incident in August 1992 where Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and U.S. marshals engaged in an eleven-day armed standoff. It involved self-proclaimed white separatist Randy Weaver, his family, and a friend named Kevin Harris. It took place in an isolated area where the family cabin was located. Weaver’s wife Vicki and his 14-year-old son, Sammy were killed during the siege, as well as a law enforcement officer. Weaver was charged with murder. The trial took place in Boise Idaho in 1993. Wyoming attorney Gerry Spence defended Weaver. Weaver was acquitted of the charges relating to murder. He later sued the US government for the killing of his wife and child. The case was settled for $3.1 million dollars.
Spence’s defense in the case has helpful trial techniques about persuasion skills for civil trial lawyers. Dr. Daniel Gross, associate professor of communications at Montana State University, wrote an article in Trial Diplomacy Journal Vol. 19 analyzing the trial. He noted that the trial story could easily be entitled “The Ruby Ridge conspiracy.” The conspiracy, he says, was Spence’s emphasis about the violation of constitutional rights and the government’s exercise of very bad judgment.
As an example of that focus, the Weavers dog, “Streicher”, was shot by a government sniper. This fact is insignificant in comparison to the dramatic shootout and siege of the Weaver cabin which involved the killing of three people. But Spence emphasized this incident because it supported his theme of government violation of Constitutional rights and the exercise of very bad judgment. He described the shooting of the dog with the killing of the Weaver child. By doing that, he created a dramatic scene emphasizing his overall theme of the case. He started with opening statement:
“They knew they were going to take that dog out, and this is a dog that has committed no crime, they’ve got no right to kill the dog, and if you kill the dog in front of a little boy what you think he might do, especially if the dog is shot in the back as Streicher was. The dog begins to yelp and cry and drags his crippled hindquarters around. It was the snippers job to kill the dog. He shot the dog, and that’s the first shot in this case. The dog’s back hindquarters were shattered, his hip was shattered, and the bullet went right down, right along the back spine, right along the full length of the dog’s bod – shot from the back. The dog was following the kid home. When that little boy saw his best friend shot, he yelled “You SOB, you killed my dog, you killed my dog.” And he pulled out his gun and he fired a couple of shots. He didn’t hit anybody, but they all began to fire at the boy. The little child dropped his gun and ran home. And here was a little kid is running as fast as he can to go home, but they shot him in the back while he was running and killed him.”
In addition to the theme that was emphasized, Spence’s trial approach involved a narrative that Professor Gross says consisted of four characteristics: theme, characters, setting and action
Spence, in summation, used a quote from Thomas Jefferson for the basic theme: “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 and that includes law enforcement. As Spence told the jury “That’s why the Constitution was made.” American citizens are protected by the Constitution whose guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. An underlying theme was the notion that the defendant Weaver was the “victim of a smear” about him being a bad American which was not true. He said about the conspiracy by the government:
“The evidence in this case will be that the government, in an attempt to cover those crimes, will attempt to smear and make you dislike Randy Weaver by charging him and associating him with acts of people and organizations that he is not associated with. The evidence will be in this case that they will have tried to make them part of those associations so that is all right for what the government did, in violation of our sacred rights under the Constitution to be protected by the Constitution, by the very government that is attempting to take away his rights in this case.”
That he had been “entrapped” by law enforcement officers sworn to uphold the Constitution. Spence challenged the jurors to be diligent and preserve “justice, truth and the future not only for the Weaver family, this jury but for this country. He told them this was an important case and that: “our grandchildren are going to be part of this.”
Professor Gross points out that his closing narrative in summation contained three categories of characters: the perpetrators, the victims and the narrator – lawyer. He identified the perpetrators as the members of law enforcement whom he labeled “the new Gestapo” and “big brothers.” Spence identified the victims as members of the Randy Weaver family. In addition, all Americans were victims of federal repression that would entrap people and use huge forces within their power. They would turn a “piddly little to bit case into a major case and spend millions of taxpayers money.” As a whole describe the family as a quote loving, God-fearing and Bible believing family.” Weaver was depicted as someone who had used bad judgment and if guilty of anything it was that he loved his family too much.
Spence included himself as a character in the narrative. He told them like the members on the jury he was dealing with something in the pursuit of justice. Spence had his wife stand and said “we are all guilty of using poor judgment. He introduced her and said: “we’ve been married for a long time, why should I be proud of her? When I get home, she’s going to say to me, you use poor judgment. You should’ve had me stand up like that, and she’s going to say a lot of other things. But it does not mean that I am a criminal except in her eyes.”
The setting of Spence’s narrative was “in America” or “this country” specifically it was in Idaho at rural America for the Weavers with the “Little House” and where a boy runs with his dog just like “old and Yeller in the movies.”
The four characteristics of Spence’s closing narrative included an appeal to the jury that the federal government entrapped Randy Weaver. In other words, maybe Randy Weaver used “poor judgment” during the days leading up to the Ruby Ridge tragedy, however federal agencies “used really bad judgment” by violating all of the laws of the state of Idaho. They killed a son and a wife. His narrative was intended to show how law enforcement encroached and “entrapped” not only the Weavers but all Americans. He started the trial with this theme in his opening statement:
“This is a case that was brought by the government not for the crimes that Randy Weaver committed, or Kevin Harris committed, but were committed by the government, and that the charges in this case were filed to cover those crimes. It’s going to be a hard thing in this case, these gentlemen, for us to believe that, and it sent. And although it angers me, the evidence we do here will send. It is hard to believe that our government could do that.”
The techniques of the narrative
The techniques for creating jury participation can be seen from his narrative included: (1) his choice of a narrative (2) inclusive language (3) anecdotes and riddles (4), simplicity (5) the setting for the narrative and (6) catharsis.
The narrative was a story that included as wide a group of people as possible, including not only the jurors and citizens of Idaho, but all Americans. Here is how he began the story of conspiracy and violation of Constitutional rights:
Thank you, Your Honor. If it may please the court, please counsel, ladies and gentlemen of the jury.
I have been at this for forty years, over forty years, and I never begin a closing argument in an important case, in any case, until I feel like I feel now. And I should tell you that since my argument starts with me, that maybe I ought to tell you how I feel. I think to myself, can I do what I need to do? I feel afraid. I feel inadequate.
Can I start with the basic proposition I think we would all agree with, and that is that government agents are bound by the law, the same as the rest of us. They’re bound by morals and by justice and by decency, the same as we. And government agents can’t lie and say it’s right because they’re officers. And they can’t come into court and play hide-and-seek with the facts and say that’s all right because they are federal employees. And they can’t persecute people, and they can’t entrap people, and they can’t state the wrong law, and they can’t use their huge forces and their power because they are federal officers. And they can’t turn a piddly little two-bit case into a major case and expend millions of taxpayers’ money because they are federal officers. And they can’t refuse to negotiate with citizens, because they have power, they can’t attack us because of our religious or our political beliefs, simply because they have power; they can’t come into Idaho from Washington D.C. and claim that Idaho law is null and void.”
Spence used phrases like “I want to tell you a story – it’s one of my favorite stories.” He used riddles to be solved like “Now, I have to ask your question and I don’t have an answer because I don’t know.” This device attracts attention and invites interest.
Simplicity was an essential part of his trial presentation. His narrative with its overall simplicity invited jurors’ attention. He did not use a confusing collection of details and facts. Simplicity creates participation, especially when the alternative is confusion and complexity. The setting of the narrative was where the jurors lived. As such he told them they were faced with the fact that they were in danger if they did not act in this case with the right verdict. The catharsis he offered was: “Justice, truth and a safe future, but not only for this country, but for you and this family.” He told them that it was all: “In your hands.” He invited the jurors to complete the story by punishing the villains and to experience the meaning of the statement: “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”
Gerry Spence claims that in structuring a winning argument the key is to “tell a story.” In the Randy Weaver case, he told a story about a conspiracy. A conspiracy in which all of the members of the jury were potential victims of the federal government or “the new Gestapo.” He warned that they had killed a mother, shot a boy and “who knows what we will do next if they are not stopped.” Through effective communication techniques he made the jurors, Idaho and all of American partners in this opportunity to right a wrong that would benefit all of them. Your civil trials should utilize the same general concepts in representing your clients.