Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? Life is messy. And this week’s episode of “Bull” captured the essence of not only a messy life, but the angst that defendants experience when feeling wrongly accused.
Dr. Jason Bull, the charming yet slightly narcissistic psychologist who runs a state-of-the-art trial sciences firm, has once again found a criminal defendant who desperately needs his expertise. In fact, Dr. Bull must be feeling the holiday spirit because this time, he and his team work pro bono. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, real-life jury consultants do occasionally take on pro bono cases.)
The entire episode centers around a scuffle that occurs while a young dad and his wife are standing in one of those mile-long Black Friday lines in hopes of securing the most popular gift of the season for their son. A few guys decide to “meet a friend” in line and voilà: words are said, punches are thrown, a brawl ensues, and one of the line-skippers ends up on the ground, allegedly because the dad pushed him.
Fast-forward a bit, and the young dad is being arraigned with a misdemeanor assault charge. He can either take Door No. 1 and spend a few days in jail until his hearing (and lose his job), take Door No. 2 and fork over $5,000 for bail (which he doesn’t have), or take Door No. 3 and accept a guilty plea, pay a $75 fine, and go home.
His public defender convinces him to accept a plea even though she doesn’t think he’s guilty. [Hello, ethics board?] A few days later, the dad — while at work — is arrested for manslaughter. The guy who fell to the ground apparently died of a head injury and since the young dad already admitted to assault, the ADA jumped on the chance to charge him with manslaughter.
Enter: Benny, ex-prosecutor turned in-house litigator, and Dr. Bull, jury guru extraordinaire. Ready to win yet another trial. As I watched the episode, a number of scenes resonated with my jury-consultant brain, and shockingly, weren’t completely off the reservation.
The rest of this column may ruin it for those who have yet to watch the episode (and want to), so here’s my official SPOILER ALERT.
Art Imitates Life #1
Remember the public defender who convinced her client to accept a plea for something she didn’t believe he actually did? Benny and Bull decide to do a little legal maneuvering before jury selection to boot her off the case. According to Bull, he wanted to win and “…the only argument that we have, the only one that makes any sense at all, is that this man was given bad advice. And that’s not going to ring entirely true to the jury if the person who gave him that bad advice is sitting next to him in court.” Truth.
Inside the courtroom, it’s absolutely critical that trial themes are consistent with not only the factual evidence but also the party’s persona. In the world of complex civil litigation, think about this: Let’s assume a large publicly traded company is on trial for fraud and wants to convince the jury that its employees are salt-of-the-earth folks who may not be perfect, but certainly do the very best they can.
Which witnesses are most consistent with that persona? Upper executives in suits who rarely see life outside of corporate headquarters, or the folks with boots on the ground who keep the business humming? When selecting a corporate representative and key storytellers, consider whether they advance your trial themes and party persona, or simply regurgitate facts for the record. One is far more persuasive than the other.
Art Imitates Life #2
During jury selection, Benny is on the hunt for jurors who are willing to make commonsense decisions, and the questions he asks during his 60-second voir dire are designed to do just that. He focuses on education, current employment, and he even tosses in a hypothetical just to keep things interesting.
When advising clients on which jurors are worth one of our precious strikes, I always consider each juror’s educational background and employment experience. Something as simple as a college major or professional membership can provide insight on whether a juror is rule-bound or tends to think outside the box. It can also identify potential leaders in the deliberation room. It’s not a perfect predictor, but it’s certainly something to remember when deciding who to keep and who to strike.
Art Imitates Life #3
In Monday’s episode, Bull’s client is — like every defendant — forced to sit at counsel table and listen to a verbal assault on his character and conduct. Human nature kicks in, and the client guffaws, grimaces and generally makes zero effort to hide his emotions. Benny and Bull woodshed him during a break and lecture him on the importance of remaining calm, cool and collected during trial: “The jury is always watching and every time they look at you they see an angry guy who can’t control his temper. … Start behaving like a guy who was buying a present for his kid, not a guy who was looking for a fight.” Perception matters. Always. [Note: the guy-who-was-buying-a-present persona is also consistent with their trial theme.]
Bull was worried that his client wouldn’t be able to get out of his own way. Jury consultants (and lawyers) see this all of the time: a client who is fraught with anxiety, has a need to control the process, is uncomfortable not sharing every single detail, or is so utterly disgusted with the fact the case is going to trial that he or she simply can’t mask the anger. When emotions get in the way, the ability to present effectively becomes 10 times harder than what it needs to be. We jury consultants wear many hats, and often spend a significant amount of time managing expectations, quelling fears, and generally helping folks get out of their own way.
Most Relatable Scene
While waiting on the verdict, the client asks, “How long will it take?” I was relieved to hear Bull admit that “there’s no science to this.” There is absolutely no ability to predict how long a jury will deliberate. Ever.
Group dynamics, the level of agreement/conflict within the group, and the personality characteristics of each individual juror plays a vital role. But, jurors around the country take their job seriously, and I’ll go to the mat fighting for the American jury. I’m a firm believer that jurors do the very best they can with the tools they are given.
How long does it take? It depends.
In a predictably predictable fashion, Dr. Bull and the legal team secured a not guilty verdict for our young dad. Life goes on.