Provided by Nicholas Zauzig Sandler
In a courtroom so filled to capacity that attorneys sat in the jury box, Tracey Lenox introduced four colleagues she hand-selected to present how to prepare for a jury trial to members of the Prince William County Bar Association last week.
“When putting together this seminar, I chose a group of attorneys I would want to talk to about issues in preparing my own case for trial,” Lenox explained. She is a Criminal Defense Attorney with Nichols Zauzig Sandler and has years of experience conducting and preparing cases for trial.
The speakers included three criminal defense attorneys: Michael Hollingsworth, with Nichols Zauzig Sandler; Che C. Rogers, a solo practitioner; and Kevin Leahy, with Boyce Leahy Francescon. The fourth speaker, Rebecca Thacher, is with the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.
This was the first of a two-part continuing legal education seminar about jury trials.
Part One-Client Intake to Morning of Trial was held Aug. 17, and Part Two—Jury Selection through Closing Argument, will take place Aug. 24 from 3:00-5:00 p. m. at the courthouse. The seminars are presented by the Prince William County Bar Association.
“Jury prep is a skill set any serious trial lawyer wants to develop—it’s the pinnacle of trial work. But private attorneys rarely have the chance to practice those skills,” said Lenox. Why? Because the number of criminal convictions from a jury trial is small, hovering around one percent, according to the Virginia Supreme Court.
In many cases attorneys can prep months for a trial, only to have the case resolved by plea just before the court date.
Panelist Ché Rogers, a seasoned criminal defense attorney, gave practical advice about client intake/control and case selection, especially relating to court-appointed work.
Every now and then, clients who are incarcerated may believe they are the experts, because they’ve been in prison for some time and “feel they know more about the justice system than you do,” Rogers said.
“It’s important that, even though the client makes a lot of decisions on the case, they have to accept that only one of you in the room is an attorney,” he said.
Criminal Defense Attorney Kevin Leahy described the pre-trial investigation process from interviewing the client through to developing the theme of the case.
The initial client meeting is crucial to establishing trust. “I put aside paper and pen in this first meeting and just sit across from my client and listen. Too often, attorneys are so busy taking notes, they don’t really hear what their clients are saying,” he said.
He described how he works with potential witnesses, private investigators, expert witnesses and police officers during the investigation phase. He also talked about determining the type of case and the importance of being flexible as conditions change.
Across the table from many criminal defense attorneys representing drug cases in Prince William County is Rebecca Thacher with the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. She shared her practice of creating trial notebooks, which she learned from the Honorable James A. Willette, formerly Chief Deputy Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Thacher relies on case notebooks prepared in sequential order to outline and shape her trials. In addition to enhancing efficiency and organization, the notebook can relay a positive impression to the judge or jury.
“When they see a notebook on the table, it conveys a certain level of importance and preparation for the case,” she said. Thacher shared some case notebooks as examples and outlined the process she uses in preparing them.
Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Hollingsworth with Nichols Zauzig Sandler spoke passionately about the importance of pre-trial motions in criminal litigation.
Hollingsworth said the lack of effective trial motions can render the defense lawyer a mere plea negotiator or sentencing advocate, without full information. “Not every case calls for scorched-earth litigation. But every defendant deserves to have all of her rights protected,” he said.
He went on to further describe the purpose of pre-trial motions, their timing and how to use information gathered from motions to frame the case.
Lenox concluded the seminar by moderating a panel discussion about plea agreements and the timing of various stages leading up to the day of trial.
“When doing our best possible work, prepping for trial is the difficult skill that sets us apart from other lawyers,” she said, adding, “it’s the goal of any serious trial lawyer to fully develop this skill.”