You Are Summoned

Ever get a jury summons? Did it make your stomach twist? The juror is one of the most important people in a court trial and it is an honor and a privilege to represent your community. And it promises to be a rich experience for the mystery writer.

I am, and have been, a trial attorney for over thirty years which means that I’m more comfortable cross-examining a witness than I am at a cocktail party.  In many ways, trials are just like you see on TV but most of the time TV lawyers would end up in contempt of court in a real court room. I once saw a prosecutor held in contempt for misspelling the defendant’s name in an indictment. She cried.

Moving on….

Trials are formal proceedings with elaborate rules designed to ferret out reliable evidence, exclude that which is not and to put an end to a dispute. The vast majority of cases are tried in public and a throng of people gather as participants and observers of the event. The judge’s seat is elevated over the parties, their lawyers, the jurors, the veniremen (people who are called to jury duty), the court clerk, court security, cops, witnesses, the curious and the press so that she can maintain control of the court room and ensure an orderly proceeding. I’ve delivered closing arguments when the rooms were filled to the brim with observers and reporters but most of the time, the gallery behind me is empty.

Practice pointer for mystery writers: A very interesting thing happens when a witness crosses the threshold into a courtroom. He will say one thing in the hallway not five minutes before he walks into the room and something else entirely on the stand.  It is the conceit of the system to assume that the public nature of his testimony encourages truthfulness. After thirty plus years, I’m not so sure.

In lawyer terms, the witness “waffled” (his very sure statement in the hallway was qualified on the stand) or he “flopped” (he said something else entirely). The reasons why witnesses waffle and flop are as myriad as the persons themselves. Did the boast in the hallway and diminish on the stand? Did they minimize in the hallway and become emboldened on the stand? Did they change their story because there is someone else in the room who knows the truth? Did they change their story because they don’t want to hurt or help someone in the room, or because they do want to hurt or help someone in the room? Or was their story changed because adrenalin hit their system with all those people looking at them and obliterated their memory (which can be really bad for someone who wanted that testimony or very good for someone who did not). Sometimes, rarely but sometimes, it turns out the witness had deep-seated psychiatric issues and his veracity is as fragile as a soap bubble.

Forget not that the accused, and the victim, and whodunit are all witnesses too with their own motivations for story-telling and changes thereof.

The witness’ psyche is the writer’s playground and the subtle reasons for changing stories provides are limitless source of twists and clues rarely explored beyond the “I lied to save myself” reason.

Go for it, dear scribes. Play and be merry.

Keenan Powell/@KeenanPowell6

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17 thoughts on “You Are Summoned”

  1. Ooooh, interesting, Keenan! Flopping is so hard to get across as a writer because we think everyone has their motivations and they’re concrete. Don’t want to confuse the reader. But if we’re too hard and fast, then we’re not realistic. Such a balancing act!

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    1. I was called once and sat around half a day, hoping to be picked. The judge came in late in the morning and said the parties agreed to continue the trial. He gave me a cold, hard look since attorneys are automatically excused in federal court if they ask for it. I really wanted to see how it worked from the other side of the bar. But realistically because I am a lawyer, my presence would have probably skewed the experience. Alas. Maybe next time.

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  2. Wow, this is a fascinating post, Keenan! I’ve never been in a courtroom (except for traffic court once, ahem), but you painted a vivid picture. This is a great reminder of how complex the human psyche is, and that people usually aren’t driven by one single motivation. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. I love being called for Jury Duty. Last year I was called, but not chosen. I continued to show up every day and sat in the audience, taking notes. I worked in my manuscript over lunch and had some of my highest word count days. I love that manuscript, too–I think my personal experience helped to shape what went into the story.

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  4. I sat on a wrongful termination case, but got kicked off as the alternate at the end. It was torment to sit through the trial but not be able to deliberate. I would have argued for the opposite outcome, as well.

    I am also pleased to be able to remember sitting at your side to assist you in Fed PD cases and observing some of those changing testimonies. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating! Thanks for explaining all this. I was called once for a big case and had to sit for 3 days while they seated the jury. It was a fascinating process to watch, and I was disappointed when I was finally excused.

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  6. While even before I began writing crime fiction I never shirked jury duty, I’ve only been selected once… and the defendent ended up taking a plea bargain before the trial got started.

    My statement to everyone I’ve every known who’s received a summons and talked about trying to get out of it is to consider who they would want on their own jury or that of a loved one. Or, turning the tables, who they would want on a jury if they or someone they loved had been harmed.

    Having said that, I was very concerned I might get a summons for the James Holmes case. As interesting as it might have been, that would’ve been an enormous commitment of time.

    What stories you could tell! You should write a book. *wink*

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