I had occasion to attend a portion of a murder trial a couple months ago. My husband had to testify, called by the prosecution. More on that later.
A man was on trial for murdering his estranged wife on February 14, 2017. I remember that date because my husband had his wisdom teeth out that day, and we got the news the next morning just before I headed out for the Rainforest Writers Village, a writing retreat.
Why did we get the news? The accused (now convicted), named Jason, was a former coworker of my husband’s and they’d been talking about his situation over the previous months. Jason was in the middle of a bitter divorce with two young children in the middle (both under 10, I believe). He was frequently upset with his wife who he claimed was abusing the kids. He talked to my husband fairly regularly about it. My husband told him to document everything, and to work with the police and his lawyer. Jason claimed that her parents were willing to testify on his behalf in a custodial hearing, and he claimed that his wife’s boyfriend’s ex-wife was also concerned that Sparky (the murder victim) was abusing her kid and was talking to the police.
So we were feeling pretty sympathetic to his situation, given this information.
And then he killed her.
Going into the trial, there was absolutely no doubt that he had shot her. He’d confessed on the 911 call. He said she’d attacked him in his home with a knife and he had been defending himself. The knife in question was a bread knife with a very sharp point (I saw it).
The day I was able to see some of the testimony was the first day. Opening arguments had already happened before lunch break so I didn’t already know where the prosecution was going or what the defense planned to argue, which put me in the position of getting to evaluate the evidence and narrative as I listened. (Though as I said above, I was sympathetic to Jason). My husband was called to be available for the afternoon (he didn’t end up getting called to testify until the next day). He couldn’t go into the courtroom. I could. I was eager to do so because I want to write a romantic suspense down the road and I wanted to see an actual trial. I learned a lot.
Today I’m going to talk about what I learned, and next time, I’m going to tell you about what appears to have happened the day of the murder and why he was convicted. To whet your appetite, Sparky recorded her own murder.
I was a little bit startled by the layout of the courtroom. On TV, the witness box is always between the judge and the jury and facing the prosecution and defense. In this courtroom, the witness box faced the jury from across the room. The prosecution and defense shared a table, which was a little odd to me just because they are adversaries and it surprised me to see them at the same table.
Another thing I was surprised by was how exceedingly polite everybody was. I don’t know if that was a function of how the judge managed his court, or if that’s standard. But there were apologies for interrupting, tons of pleases and thank-you’s, a lot of “may I” questions, and so on. Now this makes sense to me, since being rude would prejudice the jury. Or could. But I wasn’t prepared for just how polite everybody was.
The police who were first on the scene and the coroner couldn’t come in to the courtroom until their testimony. But the detectives on the case could be in the courtroom the entire trial.
The prosecutor had a binder full of documents. These were pieces of evidence and numbered accordingly. The defense and the judge already had the list and numbers and I know the defense had reviewed everything, and I”m fairly certain the judge had as well, though I can’t be certain. Whenever the prosecutor would present evidence, he’d start by showing the defense who would peruse the information and then give an approval (again, politeness) or object if he meant to object.
When he was cleared to move ahead, the DA would ask the judge if he could approach the witness. Once that permission was given, he’d take the document to the witness and ask him or her to verify its truthfulness to the best of their knowledge and ability (usually these were documents prepared by the witness like the coroner’s report by the coroner, or report by the detective and so on and so they could confirm).
The objections came most often when there wasn’t enough foundation. I took that to mean, essentially, baby steps. The prosecutor couldn’t draw the line from a to b to c to c. He had to go to a.1, a.2, a.3, a.4 . . . b, b.1, b.2, . . . . So if the objection was upheld, he simply went back to the witness and asked more questions to fill in the minute details.
One thing I should have realized but didn’t, was that when there was a major objection, the jury was excused to the jury room and the point was argued (very politely) until the judge ruled on whatever it was. Could this evidence be allowed in? Was that person qualified to say what he was saying? That sort of thing. Once the judge ruled, the jury returned and things went on. If the objection was upheld, then the jury never heard that information. It couldn’t therefore be prejudicial, and the jury couldn’t decide that they didn’t like the prosecutor or defense because of that objection. Totally makes sense, but of course, TV always has them in the room with the judge telling the jury to disregard whatever was said.
Yeah. Right. Because that works.
Once the evidence was shown to the witness, the prosecutor would turn to the judge and say “Offer.” That’s it. Then the judge would say “Received.” And then the document would be turned into the court clerk as part of the trial record. The trial was recorded. No stenographer.
After it was submitted, the prosecutor would ask to “publish” the evidence to the jury, which meant showing or telling them.
Another interesting thing to me was that the attorneys had to ask to go anywhere in the courtroom, or to do anything. If they wanted to present evidence, they had to ask first. They had to ask to go into the “well” (the empty space in the middle between the jury box, the judge’s stand, the witness box, and the prosecutor/defense table. Sometimes the prosecution wanted to do a demonstration in the well, or wanted to carry evidence into the well.
Before my husband went upstairs to the courtroom, he had to check in and listen to the interview that the detective had done with him. Nobody else was there. He just had to listen to what he’d said. It had been a long time since he’d interviewed, so that made sense. The defense never contacted my husband to talk to him.
Next time I’m going to tell you more details about the evidence and the narratives presented. I wish I’d been able to go more days than I did. I wanted to hear the defense. I read about it in the newspaper later, and I’ll tell you what it said. It might take me a few posts to lay it all out. I’m not sure. But I think it’s fascinating and I really want to attend another major crime type of trial to see how it proceeds. I just want to see the whole process. I’d also love to be on a jury and get a sense of that process.