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Details

Jeff Gamso put up a post today that included, among other things, a portion of a detailed log about what one death row inmate did prior to his execution. For example, at 10:50:23, he asked for grape soda. At 10:55:36, he requested a “special meal” of a T-bone steak with A-1 steak sauce and a “Chief” salad with blue cheese dressing.

Details like that make everything feel more real, and in this particular case, those details really humanize that man for me. Knowing his last meal does more to upset me about his execution than all the mitigation in the world. It drives home that the government killed a person. It’s hard for me to think that an evil monster would have a favorite steak sauce or cut of beef. Hearing about the horrendous childhood abuse he might have received or the debilitating mental illness that’s destroyed him may seem too extraordinary to be real. It’s nothing I’ve experienced, just as the trauma to his supposed victim and the victim’s family is nothing I’ve experienced. Weighing those factors is an intellectual exercise in which no factor is in any way related to anything that occurs regularly in my reality. Knowing his favorite salad dressing makes him very real. They killed a real person. He liked blue cheese.

At an Oktoberfest a few years back, I was at a table next to the polka band when an elderly member of the ensemble collapsed. A friend of mine, the first person to respond, initially helped the old man by sitting him upright and straightening out his bent, wire-framed glasses. My friend gently positioned them on the man’s face in a way I’ll never forget. Something about that tiny detail, that one little act, will never leave my mind. My memory of the old man collapsing again, of seeing him get CPR and assistance from paramedics, and even my memory of learning later that he died en route to the hospital aren’t anywhere near as vivid as that one detail. I don’t know why.

In one of my recent trials, the victim showed up every day wearing his finest suits. They were neatly pressed. His shoes were always freshly shined. He read self-help books and manuals of inspirational bible verses when the court stood at recess. He talked about justice and faith every time he opened his mouth and sat eagerly in the front row of the gallery next to the aisle, wringing his hands in his lap. Of all the memories I have from that case, the single most striking thing was seeing him sitting there when the jury read the verdict and watching him storm out in disgust. I still recall his shiny shoes and his nice suit more than any other part of trial. Again, I don’t know why that is.

It’s nothing new for me to say that details are an essential part of persuasion, but it’s certainly worth repeating. A person’s last meal, the way someone put their glasses back on, or the appearance of a victim in court may not be important details to most people. They don’t have to be. In the context of trial or mitigation, a detail only has to be important to one person. If it lends even the slightest bit of credibility to what the defendant is saying or makes even one juror think of the defendant as a person instead of an evil beast, it’s worth it. Details are also something the other side may not have.

I read police reports every day. Most of them dryly recount events that would stand out as being extremely exciting in the context of most people’s daily life. Because of the blind faith most people have in authority, however, the just-the-facts-ma’am style of most reports seems to work. Officers appear to represent truth or justice or the American way or something like that. Just like Superman. Juries are happy to believe a boring retelling of a thrilling car chase or a dangerous assault for that very reason.

Your best weapon is probably details, and that’s probably because the officer won’t have them. I’m perpetually amazed at the things clients recall. Whether it’s the broken button on the officer’s uniform, the gum on the bottom of his shoe as he started kicking your client, or the fact he was wearing white socks, those are the details that might define the incident for a judge or juror. They may make your client and his story become just real enough to overcome the inherent bias against him and in favor of the police.

You never know which details are going to stick with which juror, if any stick at all. I can’t even predict which details are going to stick with me. Because of that, you should bring out all of the details, every single last one of them. Within reason, you should present the jury with the highest resolution picture you can. Maybe the grainy, dull, official version will seem a little less persuasive as a result.

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