Every lawyer has a first. It is usually looked forward to with a mixture of excitement and dread. When it is over, you are glad to see the back of it, but you always wonder if you could have done something differently. It is usually painful, but you do your best and learn to move on.
A first trial.
For those of you contemplating ruining your lives by going to law school and for those of you that have lost your damn minds and are about to graduate from law school, here’s a helpful little hint: When the Senior Partner comes in and throws a case file on your desk with the trial of said case scheduled to start in half an hour, you might have a problem. If the Senior Partner tells you that the case is an open and shut cake walk, you need to run away. Far, far, far away.
Granted, Criminal District Court trials are spur of the moment things. Frankly, there isn’t even that much to prepare for because it always follows a fairly strict formula. The arresting officer and/or complaining witness testify for the State. Depending on your client’s criminal record and their ability to speak in coherent sentences, you may or may not put your client on the stand. That’s about it unless, by some crazy stroke of luck, you actually have a believable eye witness to testify for the Defense, but that happens with the rarity of finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
Of course, when one is a young lawyer fresh out of law school, that shoot from the hip stuff doesn’t work. A young lawyer thinks that they need weeks to prepare for what, in reality, should only take about ten minutes.
So, the case was a BWI. No, that’s not a typo. Boating While Impaired. I would challenge you to go out into Banks Channel right now and find a boater who hasn’t had a drink, but my guy got unlucky. No shock there.
The boat was brand spanking new (that may have even been its first voyage if I recall correctly) and it was seriously expensive—expensive like the sticker price could have easily covered a four-year college education. It was purchased and owned by this couple who looked like every other early retirees to the Wilmington area: Stylishly silver hair, deep brown tan, shorts, flip-flops and matching rugby shirts (barf).
So, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Patrol, my client was driving the boat while the power couple sat down and enjoyed the ride. Due to either a complaint call or erratic movement, the Wildlife Officers pulled the boat and discovered that the driver was over the legal limit for alcohol consumption. That would be a plausible story...if you never laid eyes on my client.
Bless his heart. If he actually tried to clean up for court, I would have hated to see him on the day of his arrest. I can at least say that all of his clothes matched—camouflage from head to toe. He apparently only shaved every couple of weeks and he smelled like he had a five pack a day smoking habit. The coup de grace was the amazing mullet he sported—it stuck out in spots like he was getting radio reception and it would have put Billy Ray Cyrus to shame in his glory days.
Unfortunately, my client had an impressive criminal record, but—in an interesting turn of events—the owner of the boat was prepared to testify that he was the one driving the boat, not my client. Truth be told, the owner’s version of events made much more sense to me. I wasn’t even sure how my client and the power couple knew each other, but if I’d just dropped a load of cash on a boat, I can assure you that my client wouldn’t drive it if he was the last person in hell.
By the way, the testimony of the boat owner was the reason the case was declared to be a “slam dunk.”
I did my best to look composed as I walked into court and sat at the defense table with my client. The Assistant District Attorney put the Wildlife Officers on the stand where both of them stated that they witnessed my client driving the boat. I did my darnedest to shake them, but they had been testifying for the prosecution a lot longer than I’d been a lawyer and they stuck to their story unwaveringly.
The State rested and it was time to patch the ship together as best I could. I certainly wasn’t putting my client on the stand with his record, but I was still going to take a shot with the boat owner. He took the stand, took the oath and swore up, down, left, right and center that my client wasn’t driving the boat.
Yay! Reasonable doubt! Woohoo!
The ADA cross-examined the boat owner whereupon it was discovered that said owner had bit of a pot habit and my client was his dealer.
We closed evidence and I stood up to make some sort of a closing argument. I was thinking about going with the “Your Honor, look at him! Would you let this man drive you expensive-assed boat? Of course not!” defense, but I didn’t even get a word out before the judge motioned for me to sit back down and zip my lips.
This next part is shocking, so you need to make sure you’re sitting down and have your smelling salts within reach: The judge found my client guilty with about a millisecond of deliberation.
As I picked up the remnants of my chewed up ass and prepared to scurry out of the courtroom, the judge called me and the ADA to the stand. I was told that I was screwed when the wildlife officers testified and the rest of the show was mere entertainment. I believe it was put to me like this: “Once you have the arresting officer’s version, a bus load of nuns could testify to the contrary and you will still be screwed.”