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.
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.