Understanding what will appeal to a jury can make all the difference in the outcome of your case reports Dallas criminal lawyer John Helms.
The OJ Simpson trial happened over twenty years ago, but it continues to capture the public’s imagination. FX recently aired a miniseries on the case, and ESPN aired a five-part documentary in June about the rise and fall of OJ Simpson, added Dallas criminal lawyer John Helms.
“I was a young lawyer during the trial, and I had a case in a nearby federal court in Los Angeles. I was working very long hours at the time, but I followed the case as closely as I could. I also read two books about the case in the years following the trial.”
So much has been written about the case, the evidence, and especially the trial, but this is my take on the main lesson a criminal defense lawyer can learn from the defense strategy: Know your jury and what will appeal to them.
The case should have been a slam-dunk for the prosecutors, and they thought it was. The evidence of Mr. Simpson’s guilt was truly overwhelming. The prosecutors failed in a lot of ways, but their main failing, in my view, was making the case too complicated without explaining how the evidence completely ruled out the defense’s theory.
What criminal defense attorney Johnny Cochran knew was that this particular jury would be receptive to a beyond-far-fetched theory that all of the evidence could have been planted by rogue, racist LAPD cops. He knew, from years of experience trying civil rights cases against the police, that the African-American community in Los Angeles had deep-seated mistrust and anger toward the LAPD, much, if not all of which was probably justified.
The jury consisted of eight African Americans, two Hispanics, one half-Native American and half Anglo, and one Anglo woman. Only two of the twelve jurors were college graduates. None of them said they regularly read a newspaper, but eight regularly watched tabloid TV. This was, in other words, a jury that would be receptive to appeals to emotion and conspiracy theories and would likely believe that the LAPD was racist and willing to plant evidence to get a conviction just because the defendant was African American.
Johnny Cochran tried the case masterfully for this audience. He did not try to connect the dots. He used a simple argument: The cops, especially Mark Fuhrman, were racist and could not be trusted. If they were racists who could not be trusted, then all of the evidence could have been planted or doctored.
With this jury, it worked to perfection, even though it defied logic and common sense when you consider the facts. First of all, at the time the evidence was collected, the LAPD did not know whether Mr. Simpson had an airtight alibi. If he had, it would have become obvious very quickly that evidence was planted, especially Simpson’s blood at Nicole Brown’s house, and cops would have gone to jail. There was also simply no way that one, or even three, police officers could have gone back and forth between Simpson’s house and Nicole Brown’s house dropping blood and evidence from one location at the other. Even if they could have, physically, the media and other officers would have seen them. There is also no innocent way to explain how Ron Goldman’s blood got in OJ Simpson’s Bronco, especially since they did not even know each other. The type of conspiracy that the defense needed would have had to involve dozens of detectives and officers, none of who knew at the time whether Mr. Simpson had an alibi. It strains logic way past the breaking point.
The prosecutors completely failed to make this point effectively. Even if they had, it is unclear that this jury would have been persuaded.
Johnny Cochran, however, knew that this jury would be persuaded less by logic and reasoning than by appeals to emotion and their pre-existing beliefs about justice and the LAPD. He wove his argument throughout the case in a simple and persuasive way.
None of this is a criticism of Mr. Cochran. He deserves the highest praise for the job he did representing his client.
The lesson of knowing your jury and what appeals to them does not just apply to high profile cases. I know from my experience trying cases that a jury in a small town in East Texas is more likely to be receptive to themes about personal liberty and personal responsibility than a Dallas jury, which may respond more to themes about fairness and equality. Each case is different, but one of a criminal defense lawyer’s most important jobs at trial is to find a theme that fits the defense and resonates with the particular jury in the box.
If you have been charged with any crime, including drug possession, fraud, assault, theft or a federal drug crimes, call Dallas criminal attorney John Helms at 214-666-8010 or visit his website.