Sunday, August 21, 2011

Court-Martial - take 1

Last week, I had my first practice court-martial here at Air Force JAG school.  The scenario was pretty simple, and the exercise wasn't too hard, but it provided some GREAT insight to my practice style and what I need to do to be a better trial counsel.

The facts were that an airman was pleading guilty to using, possessing, and distributing LSD.  He got it in the mail, gave some to another airman, and they used together.  He also sold to a civilian off-base.  So, the judge takes him through all the elements of his crime, he admits to everything, the judge decides he is pleading guilty because he believes he's guilty, and that's that.

Mainly the point of today was to argue sentencing.  After someone is found guilty or pleads guilty, they are sentenced.  In our scenario, we had a deal with the accused to 18 months of confinement.  If the military judge listens to are argument and decides the airman should receive more than 18 months, he only gets 18 months.  If the judge decides the airman should receive less than 18 months, he receives whatever that lesser sentence is. (weird, I know)

Basically what we do in this situation is introduce document evidence and call a couple of witnesses who can provide extra information as to why this airman deserves what we're going to ask the judge to give him. These documents are his enlisted performance reports, negative counseling, etc.  The witnesses are 1) the other airman he did drugs with, who is testifying under immunity, and 2) the investigator who headed up the case.  After all of that is done, the airman gives a statement, and both sides make a final argument and the judge decides.

Here's my good points from today, things that the "judge" and "defense counsel" (they are both instructors) thought I did well.
  • Argument: I tried to throw in a little of my natural sarcasm.  It's hard to develop a "tone" for argument.  They tell you to be yourself, but I don't want to be too jokey/sarcastic.  I said things like "He's provided letters of support that say he's an asset to the Air Force.  As what?  If the Air Force needs drugs dealers, then sure, he'd be a great asset!"
  • Pre Trial Conference.  I ran a pre-trial meeting with everyone just laying out the situation for the "judge" and he appreciated my organization.
  • Introduction of Evidence: My instructor thought I correctly and thoroughly introduced the evidence that I had.
  • Answers to objections:  I did a good job of answering the objections that I KNEW I was going go get (see below for the counter to this)
Here's some improvements I have to work on:
  • Volume:  I'm actually not loud enough in the courtroom.  I feel like I can hear myself, but the judge, and sometimes the jury (we call them "members") might be further away.
  • Answer to objections: I'm not great with answering objections that I DO NOT know I'm going to receive.  What can I say?  I hate improv, I love scripts.  I made some objectionable statements today and when the other side objected and stated their reason, I was quick to just withdraw my statement instead of try to rephrase it or argue the objection.
  • Objections:  Along the same lines, I need practice running through objections so I can better hear when the opposing makes objectionable comments.  I don't think I objected once today where I wasn't expecting to before the trial.
  • Being Myself: I still don't feel like "me" in a courtroom, and I make it too much of a performance than a conversation, which I think is where I need to get.
So, all in all, not bad.  Speak louder, get more comfortable with objections.  Not a problem.  I lucked out and had a great set of instructors acting as the judge and opposing counsel that really could point me in the right direction for help.

Court-martial #2 is coming up next week and it's a doozy - let's hope I learned something that will be useful!

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