Thursday, October 9, 2008

Trying to Control the Uncontrollable

by Kelly Siegler

Ever thought about what it feels like to be the person in charge of a trial? The orchestrator, if you will, of the witnesses and of the evidence? The person who should by all appearances have the presentation completely planned and under control? What does it really feel like to be the prosecutor trying a serious case?

I can tell you. In a word, miserable.

Not fun.

Sick to your stomach.


The truth might surprise a lot of people. It might even surprise a lot of long-time prosecutors. Yeah, yeah, we know. . . . We've all heard the lectures and the stories about how "exciting" and "challenging" and "exhilarating" it is to be a trial lawyer. Anyone who truly enjoys being in a trial is to be admired. I wish I could feel that way.

Truth is there aren't a lot of other situations in the job market very much like the stress that comes with preparing for and enduring a jury trial. Throw into that conflict the fact that a heck of a lot of prosecutors tend to like to CONTROL their world as much as possible and their "world" is loaded with nothing but UN-controllables.

Least in our control are the witnesses, as much as we like to think we can prepare them. . . . Other uncontrollables: the jury we ultimately end up with, because we kid ourselves that we picked them—funny; the Judge whose courtroom we find ourselves attempting to orchestrate our "symphony" in; the defense attorney, whose sole purpose it is to try to derail our carefully laid plans; the scheduling, the timing, the cross-examination of every, single witness. . . . Geez, I'm getting sick just thinking about all of it.

And what about the part over which we really think we have control? Our own performance?? How brilliantly we PLAN to make a point or argue our case or kick some butt. . . .

Maybe all of our angst and nerves and stress are the reasons why we resort to such lame and even silly attempts to convince ourselves that we are truly in control. It is pretty amusing to know that a lot of us have ourselves convinced that wearing a certain color on the "big" day will bring us luck or that wearing a certain color will ward off evil spirits. Think I'm making this up? WCI's defense lawyer Katherine Scardino recently disclosed she has a fairy wand.

Believing that if we eat the exact same food every single day of trial or placing our trial "tools" on the table in the courtroom the exact same way every day will guarantee a successful resolution are other "tricks of the trade." Following one of those "tricks" led to a friend of mine getting really sick of eating red Jell-O after three weeks in a trial.

The most commonly seen "side effect" of being in trial is losing weight. We even call it a "trial diet." There aren't too many prosecutors out there who are able to eat a real meal while trying to put on a "perfect" presentation of evidence. Heck, most survive on Diet Cokes and don't eat at all! It once got so bad during a trial that the jury asked the bailiff to see if there was something wrong with me because I was starting to look so lousy after about week five.

So now you know. The next time you see a prosecutor looking ever-so-cool in the middle of a trial . . . nothing could be further from the truth.


jigmeister said...

I didn't know Luci was a conductor! Seriously, you're the only one who wears red on final day, though I did have a pair of lucky penny loafers until they wore out.

Kathryn Casey said...

I'll have to watch in the future to see if I notice a lawyer juggling a dried up lime or wearing the same penny loafers every day of a trial. Maybe that's what I need? A talisman?

On second thought, I did have a Texas Ranger's badge someone gave me on my computer the entire time I wrote SINGULARITY, and the sequel, coming out next year, BLOOD LINES. That should count!

Donna Pendergast said...

How true, How true! No one but the ringmaster understands how stress filled a trial can be when you are responsible for everything and how hard on the motor. I went through one 9 week trial where I was up against a two million dollar defense. I never slept more than 4 hours a night (not even Saturday or Sunday) I'm sure that one alone took time off my life :-(

Anonymous said...

If that is the stress that a prosecutor goes through then imagine the stress of the victim. They have had the illusion of control ripped from them maybe never to return. They no longer believe in luck. They often have to endure not just a trial but the investigative process which can involve years before charges are even brought against the perpetrator. The time line for getting evidence back from the FBI labs stretches over years now. Imagine spending years wondering if you or your family will ever be safe or if charges will ever be made. Or if you will one day open your front door to face the barrel of a gun or find your wife dead or children kidnapped. Sometimes it is difficult for them to tell whether their DA has a calm cool exterior masking a deep need to see justice done or is just plain or incompetent or worse. Unlike the defendant they did not get to choose there defender.
They have no understanding of the legal process or the law they just want to feel safe again. What do they do? What color of suit or penny loafer will make them feel better? Victim's assistance programs don't provide protection. They usually provide infrequent counseling by unlicensed volunteers not instructions on how to stay alive.
The press usually causes more trauma for victims than actual pressure on the system to get the job done. If children are involved that trauma can do permanent damage. Seek no help there.
Who magic penny loafers can help a victim?

Women in Crime Ink said...

Anonymous -

Thank you for your comment. WCI features a "Your Turn" column for guest contributors to share their stories with our readers. If you have been a victim of crime and would like to tell your story, we would welcome a submission from you. For requirements, please see the "Your Turn" sidebar under our Subscriber window.

Also, we hope you read Kelly Siegler's first post for WCI. Kelly is a formidable victims' advocate and in her piece she addressed many of the same concerns you raise. Here's a link to that story:

If you have been victimized and would care to share your story, we hope you will consider writing for Women in Crime Ink. Thanks for reading.

Kelly Siegler said...

Dear Anonymous, please don't think I in any way meant to minimize anything you went through. I only wanted to convey the stress we go through because of how much we want to try and make everything right for you.

cricket said...

My understanding is that Harris County abhors prosecutors that zealously represent victim's rights. The Houston Chronicle as well as the local Houston TV networks condemn such behavior labeling it as "win at all costs" mentality. Harris County has come to advocate the rights of crooks over victims and this January your former office will be re-named "Harris County Rehabilitation Center". What a shame.

Anonymous said...

Ms Siegler,
I did not take offense. I totally understand what you are saying. I just think you are rare. I think a lot of prosecutors fall into the indifferent category. Frankly I am very tired of the overzealous prosecutor accusations based on what is simply better technology (DNA) becoming available. Frankly I wish I had you as an assistant DA. Because I think I am going to spend the rest of my life worrying about the safety of my family.

cricket said...

Careful Anon may elicit the wrath of the ADA under achiever element that is still celebrating Ms. Siegler's departure from the offices formally known as The Harris County District Attorney's Office.

Anonymous said...

One thing I find interesting is the media incessantly claiming bad defense or overzealous prosecution. What about the 12 laymen who actually make the decision? I mean if you went to the hospital and had to relay on 12 laymen to decide your treatment plan, what success rate would that health care system have? Would you expect them to be right 100% of the time?

cricket said...

Anon 3:40 are you really saying our jury system is like an HMO?

Anonymous said...

cricket: Of course not juries don't have automatic phone answering menu systems...yet

For justice press 1
For a book deal press 2

Left Coast Mom said...

Another nice thing about hospitals, you never have to worry about your care plan being rushed because someone wants to go camping and your case is taking too long. The change of shift comes on duty and picks up where the others left off.