Hypotheticals are the life blood of law school. Students read a case and seek out its “holding,” the reasons underlying the court’s decision. The professor then posits modified facts and asks if the reasoning still applies or whether the decision should now be different. Both as a law student and a professor in a law school I played around with hypotheticals, but while sometimes intellectually intriguing, these were bloodless exercises. Grades might have been affected, but since the litigants were made up, money, property, and freedom were not at stake. However, on occasion in my public defender work what could have been a law school hypothetical appeared, and the resolution of the legal game determined whether someone went to prison.
Hearsay was the issue on one of those occasions. I will spare you an extensive discussion of hearsay, but its definition is one that almost all students memorize. While it is easy to spout those definitional words, the concept is a difficult one. I would throw hypothetical after hypothetical at the student hoping to sharpen their thinking about what was and was not hearsay. This is an important distinction because the rules of evidence say that juries should not hear hearsay, even though there are dozens of exceptions that permit some hearsay to be heard. But the distinction between hearsay and non-hearsay remains important because if the evidence is not hearsay, the hearsay rule allows it. Thus, I used lots of hypotheticals to teach the hearsay concept, but it often seemed beyond the intellectual abilities of many of my students at a third-tier law school.
There came a time that in addition to the classroom teaching, I was doing an appeal for a public defender. I read the trial transcript, and a hearsay issue was at stake, one that, to my surprise and satisfaction, was almost the same as a stock hypothetical I had used in my evidence classes. I wrote a brief explaining that the disputed evidence was not hearsay and that, therefore, the defendant should have been allowed to have the jury hear it, and a retrial should be ordered.
The prosecutor’s reply brief was written by a young associate of a prestigious law firm doing what I assumed was mandatory pro bono work. Her high-paying day job signaled that she had gone to a much more highly ranked law school then the one in which I taught. Even so, it was clear that she, too, failed to understand hearsay.
I was confident when the case came for argument before an array of appellate judges. The issue was not one of interpretation or nuance. This was a classic case of non-hearsay; it should have been admitted. Its exclusion in the trial court caused an unfair trial. The conviction had to be reversed.
After my introductory comments at the lectern, I firmly said, “This was not hearsay. It should have been admitted. The defendant was denied a fair trial.” And then I was taken aback. The presiding justice said, somewhat sheepishly I thought, “Explain to me again why this isn’t hearsay.” And I thought but did not say. “Oh, shit. She doesn’t understand hearsay either.” This, however, allowed me–for my only time in an appellate argument–to haul out some of my trove of law school hypotheticals, which I hoped I was doing in a non-condescending manner, for there is nothing worse for your case than to appear to be condescending to a judge. I don’t know that I was convincing. It may have simply been that the judge’s clerk had an adequate grasp of the hearsay concept and later educated the judge, but the court’s decision—correctly—ruled for my client, and he was released from prison. But I took credit believing that sometimes, law-school hypotheticals can have real-world consequences.
An aside: I learned something about handling judges early in my career. My client’s son was charged with a rape. His father, on the advice of a lawyer, had offered the woman money in exchange for her dropping the charges. The lawyer, not the sharpest legal mind, had said that it was just like settling a civil case. The lawyer and the father were arrested for attempted bribery of a witness. The lawyer was being represented by a well-known, highly-regarded criminal defense attorney. He and I both had moved to dismiss charges and submitted briefs with several arguments supporting our position. The judge ridiculed our worked and ticked off how our contentions were unpersuasive. However, he then went on to say that we had ignored an argument, which he articulated. I started to interrupt the judge, planning to say, “But I said exactly that in my brief.” Before I could get started, my distinguished co-counsel grabbed my arm to make me stop and whispered to me, “If he thinks that he thought of it, we will win.” I stopped. We won.
I have been thinking about that case and another after I recently wrote about a law-school hypothetical on this blog when I posted about the Texas abortion law. (See the three posts of “Let’s Expand the Texas Abortion Law: Search Results for “”Texas abortion”” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog)) There I explained that a person who drove the robber to the bank was only guilty if the driver knew what the robber had planned. This had me thinking about the five-bullets case where I represented a young man charged with taking part in an attempted murder.
(concluded October 4)