The defendant took the stand. His lawyer walked him through his testimony in short opened-ended questions. And he did something I’ve never seen a defendant do: he admitted everything.
It was an assault and battery case. On a hot summer afternoon, defendant threw a razor at the head of a law enforcement officer. The defendant admitted that he ignored the officer’s initial orders. He admitted that he got the razor. It wasn’t a straight-razor, it was rounded, with nasty little tines evenly spaced along a curve. He admitted that he intended to throw the weapon at the officer. He admitted that he approached the officer with the weapon, and that the office did not approach him. And he admitted throwing the razor.
I sat there, almost slack-jawed with amazement. The defense attorney kept her cool. She asked a few leading questions on direct. I was too stunned to do anything, much less object. She asked him if he did it in self-defense. He said, “no.” She asked him why he did it. He said he wanted to scare the officer. This was literally the first potentially helpful statement in his entire testimony, but it was not a defense, since he was charged with assault. Then he testified that the officer used excessive force in handcuffing him. And that’s it. It was over.
I got up to cross. I had a little plan for my cross-examination, but the whole thing was predicated on the idea that the defendant would try to deny or minimize the conduct he was charged with. I never though that he might admit everything. As I stood at the dark wood podium, my mind raced, and I wondered whether the fact that he admitted everything would somehow sanitize it for the jury, immunize it, decriminalize it. After all, the jury might think, he wouldn’t testify to all those acts if they were crimes? Who would do that? The defendant sat on the stand. He was a small man, tiny even, and he was dwarfed by the bailiff lurking behind him.
The first thing I did was confront him with his admissions. No one likes to agree with a prosecutor on cross-examination, so he began to change his story a little bit. Now, he was saying that he accidentally threw the razor. I pushed some more. He stopped answering my questions and started giving the long, meandering answers of an uncomfortable witness that senses things are going badly. I redirected him, again and again, almost four times. But finally I got him answering along, yes or no. My last question was, “you got the razor intending to hurt the officer, didn’t you?” He said, “yes.”
We rested. The jury was instructed and we closed. I felt nervous. A child could have won that case. How could I face myself if I lost? After all, he basically admitted to everything! I’m sure the jury had seen a million courtroom dramas. Everyone knows the players and the general dynamic. How would they react when the defendant flipped the script in such a bizarre way? I had the image of a golfer who thinks too much about his swing and forgets how to do it. Or a freethrow shooter who misses the rim because suddenly he forgets how to do an easy thing.
They deliberated for 35 minutes and returned guilty verdicts. I felt relieved and silly. But happy they got it right nonetheless.