Recently, we saw the media pre-occupied with two cases that all but dominated the airwaves and the blogosphere: The federal prosecution of Rod Blagojevich, former governor of Illinois, resulting in his conviction on 18 counts of official corruption; and the State of Florida’s unsuccessful prosecution of Casey Anthony, for the murder of her 2-year old daughter, Caylee. Both cases occupied the attention of many of us – sometimes without our consent – for months, and seemed to reach conflicting and confounding results.
In the Blagojevich case, the former governor was convicted primarily on the basis of wiretapped conversations between him and his aides, in which he schemed with them to extract personal pay-backs in the form of political contributions or the promise of a federal agency appointment for Blagojevich, in exchange for appointing a successor to President Obama’s Senate seat or for implementing the funding of grants for various projects. Blagojevich was convicted, even though: (1) the prosecution could offer no evidence that Blagojevich himself or any of his aides, directly solicited anyone for any such contribution or appointment, or ever expressly stated that Blagojevich would not appoint such a successor or implement such a grant unless he received something in return; and (2) it took a second trial to convict him after the federal government was unable to do so in the first trial, resulting in a hung jury on 23 of 24 counts.
In the Anthony case, the jury acquitted Casey Anthony even though: (1) She failed to report Caylee’s disappearance to authorities for almost one month; (2) police detected an odor of decay in the trunk of her car; (3) she lied to investigators questioning her about Caylee’s disappearance; and (4) she was photographed partying hard while authorities were desperately searching for her “missing” daughter.
How do we reconcile these seemingly inconsistent verdicts and what should we learn from these two seemingly inconsistent results? If you chose the easy explanation – “something is wrong with our judicial system,” or “the jury system stinks,” – you would be missing the point. The cases can be reconciled, and our system of justice works, but must be viewed in the proper perspective. Here are the “take-aways”:
1. No case is a slam-dunk. No matter how strong your case may be, a result is not guaranteed. Whether your case is tried before a judge or a jury, it amounts to asking one or more people who are strangers to you, for their opinion. When you do so, you cede control of the outcome to that stranger or group of strangers.
2. Never discard the possibility of a settlement. All of us have heard the well-worn phrase, “a bad settlement beats a good lawsuit.” While that’s not always true, it is true that settlement represents your last and best chance to control the outcome of the dispute.
3. Preparation goes a long way toward winning lawsuits. How many times have you heard someone you know to have been involved in a lawsuit say, “My lawyer was better than my opponent’s lawyer.” That’s generally not quite true. Two elements control a case: (1) The facts of the case; and (2) the degree of preparation that goes into the case. That’s why we emphasize preparation at Beermann Swerdlove. Preparation can’t convert a bad set of facts to a good set of facts, but it can allow us to present even a bad set of facts in the best light; and it can make a good set of facts even better. So if we’re spending more of your money than you would like preparing a case, you’d be well-advised not to tie our hands. We pretty well know what it takes to put your case in the best light, we know what degree of preparation is required to do so, and we always keep our eyes on the cost-benefit consequences of our efforts.
4. Don’t ignore your attorney’s advice. Your lawsuit may be the only lawsuit you ever have. But you may rest assured that our lawyers have handled 10, 100, or even 1,000 cases to your one. So if we make a recommendation, even if it sounds bad, don’t take it lightly.
5. And the obvious: Don’t believe everything you read in the media. Media people often form strong opinions to promote their own blogs, columns, TV or radio shows. In contrast, jurors have been impaneled after extensive screening by the judge and by the attorneys for both parties; with very few exceptions, they have no ulterior motives. They hear all the evidence and spend long and often exhausting hours deliberating their verdict. For a media person to say, “the jury got it wrong” is the height of hypocrisy. In my experience, I have found jurors to be exceptionally dedicated to the oaths they take to fairly deliberate a verdict after consideration of all the evidence. They deserve our respect and gratitude for their efforts, whatever the result, and do not deserve to be maligned by media types who often don’t bother to sit through the entire trial or hear all the evidence.