Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Crime and Punishment II

Crime and Punishment
Part II

I always had a fascination with the law. I think it comes from a subconscious desire to rescue my family from their greatest threat: the criminal justice system.

As a teenager, in the early days of the web, I stumbled upon FindLaw.com and I was instantly hooked. This was back in the days before every conceivable tidbit of human knowledge was online and easily searchable, so FindLaw blew my mind. In the weeks that followed, I spent my free time browsing through federal statutes, Supreme Court opinions, and case law. How did I fit this aimless research into my social calendar? It was easy because, by a remarkable coincidence, I didn’t have any friends at the time.

Whenever a question of law popped up in one of the usenet groups I frequented, I would swoop in and answer it to the best of my limited ability, but always with absolute confidence and unflinching certainty. My responses were usually along the lines of,



Dear hot_orgy69@harvard.edu,

I'm afraid that your speeding ticket is perfectly valid. While there may have been no construction work at the time you were pulled over, construction zone speed limits and fine multipliers apply at all times of the day or night. The legal precedent for this has some of the deepest roots in American jurisprudence, tracing its lineage all the way back through English common law to the Magna Carta, which stated that, “Kinge Johnn maye hencfort noe longre fpeed hjs carrage wjy noe regard fore ljfe and ljmb oef ye free an ye surf through acre an wood yat beare ye mark of ye orange conne zonne.”

The response I got was invariably four words: “are you a lawyer?” The punctuation was, of course, entirely optional, and might be replaced with an emoticon. As in, “are you a lawyer O.o ”  or “r u lwyr  :-/ ”.

In hindsight, I believe they meant to write, “What the fuck are you talking about? Is all that nonsense supposed to mean something?”

At the time, however, I took it to mean, “Wow, Robyn! You’re as knowledgeable as you are lovely. What a valuable asset to this newsgroup. Someday soon, people in the real world will see you for the wonderful person you are, and they’ll all be sorry they teased you for crying in gym class that one time.”

What can I say? I was a dreamer.

So when my AP American History teacher broached the subject of a mock trial, I jumped aboard without a second thought.

Teacher:   “We're holding a mock trial for a case against a pornographic book called ‘Fanny Hill’. Do you want to be a part of it?”

Me:           “Yes! Yes, yes! I will rid the country of this vile pornography, this prurient obscenity that threatens to corrupt our nation’s youth!”

Teacher:   “Actually, you’ll be on the defense team.”

Me:           “I meant to say that this unwarranted attack against free speech must not stand! I will defend this noble book to my last, gasping breath!”

Teacher:   “Umm… good?”
American Mock Trial Association Seal

I dove in headfirst, collecting information on the original case on FindLaw, then running back and forth to university law libraries to review any jurisprudence I couldn’t find online. I wasn’t technically allowed in most of those libraries, but I could usually bluff or beg my way past the front desk, either pretending to be a student who’d lost her ID, or by appealing to the sanctity of the First Amendment, which was in sore danger of being soiled by the Puritanical overreach of my classmates.

I studied the opposition, taking notes on their posture in class, their comments to friends at lunch. I drew up a list of cross examination questions I imagined they’d ask, and drilled our witnesses for hours at a time.

“You call that an answer? That prosecutor is merciless! She’s going to lead you into a trap and reduce you to a jibbering wreck up there on the stand. She is going to bend you over the bench and have her way with you, right up there in front of the judge and jury and everyone! Is that what you want? Is that what you want? IS IT?!”

“You mean Stacey? She’s my best friend.”

“Not in that courtroom, she’s not! In that courtroom, she is the enemy, and what do we do to the enemy?”

“Simple answers, don’t volunteer anything?”

“Damn right!”

This was usually about the time the witness would call me a spaz and walk out.

It all turned out to be a bit of overkill, because the prosecution's strategy was to have witnesses read lurid excerpts from the book while trying not to giggle. Still, I listened keenly for every weakness, every slip-up, every avenue for making the witness look a fool during cross examination.

And look a fool they did. I got them to contradict themselves, contradict other witnesses, contradict their own lawyers’ opening arguments, and in one case I spun a web of logic that forced the prosecution’s witness to actually admit that the book was protected speech. I wasn’t even expecting that! I was just trying to fluster him with a string of leading questions, and he finally just gave up and agreed that I was right.

It was glorious.

But soon enough, the prosecution rested its case, and it was our turn. Now they were cross-examining our witnesses, and I could see immediately that they were out for blood, if for no other reason than to get back at us. And I knew they would, because our witnesses were nearly as pathetic as theirs. They would crumble just as easily.

What was I to do?

Unleash my secret weapon, of course: endless, pedantic objections. I objected to every little fault in the prosecutors’ questions, throwing them off balance and making it look as if they were the ones on trial.

“Objection! Badgering the witness!”

“Objection! Privileged information!”

“Objection! Asked and answered!”

“Objection! Calls for speculation!”

“Objection! Beyond scope of questioning!”

After that last one, the mock judge sat quietly for a moment, shuffled through his papers, and said, “I don’t know what that is. It isn’t on my list of objections.”

I offered him a more comprehensive list of objections, with my compliments.

After a string of questioning and futile attempts at cross examination, we rested our case and it was time for closing arguments. The prosecutors picked their least frazzled attorney and sent him up to address the jury. I have to admit, the bastard did a pretty good job, appealing to both law and morality. It was convincing, and the jury appeared to sway.

But then it was my turn. I stood and approached the jury box (or, rather, the double line of folding chairs where the jury sat.)

I don’t remember very much of what I said. I have vague memories of pacing to and fro in front of the jury, and of a particular, singular moment when I spun suddenly on my heel and caught the jury foreman nodding along with my arguments. Members of the audience would later slap me on the back and compare me to characters from their favorite courtroom dramas.

After that, the jury deliberations were a mere formality. As the jury retired to consider the verdict, the mock judge even told everyone not to go far. He was right. The jury came back two minutes later, and the prosecutors all groaned when they saw them at the door.

They were seated, and gave the inevitable decision: Not Guilty by Reason of Kickass Lead Defender.

It. Was. Glorious.

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