Second Chairing a Trial: A Third-Year Experience
Although I didn’t know it, I had waited my entire academic career for this moment. Coming into law school, I didn’t intend to litigate, and I especially didn’t intend to pursue criminal law. And yet, here I was two and a half years later, about to start my first criminal trial.
I am in my second internship with the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office. I had interned there during the summer, and I really enjoyed it. The atmosphere, the people, the work. All of these things made me feel like I had found my true calling.
During that summer, I had three separate chances to sit second-chair on a trial. The first, the defendant chose to plead guilty right before the jury was to be brought up for vior dire. The second case was continued due to an emergency leave of absence from the defendant’s attorney. The last, the defendant chose to hire a new attorney the eve of trial, thus holding up the case yet again. I left that summer internship having experienced pretty much every aspect of the job of a prosecutor except for that which is, to the public, the epitome of it: a trial.
Thus with a happy heart, I rejoined my supervising attorneys Shannon Hodder (J.D. ’09) and Noah Schechtman in January to continue where I left off. The opportunity to sit on a trial came quickly. A defendant pled in a trial scheduled on the third week of my internship, opening the door for another case to go to trial. Shannon and Noah decided that it was a case on which I could sit.
I spent the preceding weekend reading and rereading the victim’s statement, the officer reports, everything to do with the case. Monday comes, and along with it 48 potential jurors from which our panel is chosen. Anyone who has sat in on vior dire will tell you that it can be pretty boring. It can be, and I would be lying if I said that at no time during the seven-hour process I did not wish that we could hurry the process up. At the same time, however, I felt in my element. I finally where I had wanted to be all last summer.
With voir dire done, Shannon, the trial lead, and I discussed the evidence in detail. It was decided that I would conduct the direct examination of the responding officer. Not the most damning testimony in the case, but, hey, this was my first trial. That night, I wrote out my questions, constantly changing word after word to ensure these questions would be perfect (classic law student overkill, I’m sure).
The next day dawns, and I am somewhat nervous. I had spoken in court many times before, but this felt different. The consequences were greater. I met the officer whom I would be questioning briefly, and then the trial resumed. As with voir dire, the actual trial can be fairly boring to watch. If one knows the facts of the case, there is little revelation present in the testimony, and the witnesses’ testimony generally followed my recitation of the reports in my head.
But then, it was my turn. I stood up and said, “The State calls…” and so on. I went through my questions. The officer was a good witness. He was succinct and warm to the jury. I would like to think my questions were well crafted. I elicited the needed facts, in any case.
And then it was done. My part was over. I kept up with exhibits and kept notes on other aspects of the trial, but I was somewhat less of an active participant. I was not disappointed though. The whole trial, and my direct examination within it, felt like a turning point. This is my last semester of law school. In a few short months, I will leave behind academia and enter the world of reality. It is a journey I will take with my classmates, and I feel that we all have had, or will have, that moment of feeling like the world has shifted.
But, at the risk of sounding too philosophical, it is a shift which we all must face going forward. We have precious little time left in the safety net of school. This trial for me was one of the first steps away from that net. For you, it is probably another moment. Whatever that moment may be, cherish it and remember it. It will come but once.