September 13, 2016
The Minnesota Court of Appeals decided a case called State v. Owens, A15-1824 on September 12, 2016.
It was an unpublished case meaning that the case has no precedential value, but can be used to argue persuasively. Arguing persuasively is the crux of the case. The case was a drug case where the defense was it was not methamphetamine residue in the baggie, but instead “sugar residue” from “candy apple candy.” The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension disagreed with that assessment after conducting a forensic examination of the residue, which concluded it tested positive a trace amount of methamphetamine. Amazingly, the case survives a judgment of acquittal. (Where a Judge throws a case out for lack of evidence after the State rests their case) They get to closing arguments. The defense attorney says the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, [y]our [h]onor, [c]ounsel, as we begin final argument the presumption of innocence still resides with this man. Only you can take it away and only after you’re convinced beyond a reasonable doubt by evidence, not speculation, not reading his mind, but evidence, you have to have evidence. Every day all across the United States of America school children stand up, put their hand over their heart, and they repeat in unison, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I am asking for justice today. Thank you.” Owens at 6.
The Court of Appeals held that this was not ineffective assistance of counsel citing the following:
‘Defense counsel’s statements to the jurors that they could not find appellant guilty based on “speculation” or “reading his mind” represent an argument attacking the state’s proof on the element of appellant’s knowledge of the substance in the baggie. The fact that it was a brief closing in which he reminded the jury of the presumption of innocence and the state’s burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt could have been a strategic decision since the trial itself was short and it was a simple case of drug possession.” Id. at 7.
While lawyers may lack any discernible pragmatic skills; talking ad nauseam is usually something to which they are adept. While, the lawyer’s brevity can be appreciated in this case, this closing argument may have left a little to be desired. By my count, this closing argument was 117 words. 31 words or (26%) of the closing argument was reciting the pledge of allegiance. Television and movies portray opening and closing arguments much quicker than they are in real life. That makes sense given they have a finite portion of time to devote to courtroom histrionics because they have to advance the plot.
In the 1996 movie, Time to Kill based on the John Grisham book with the same title, Matthew McConaughey delivered a five-minute closing argument. In the HBO miniseries The Night Of, the show took a break from eczema to have an attorney deliver an opening statement in an episode that was aired on August 14, 2016, called “Samson and Deliah.” The charge was a murder case and the opening statement had to be less than one minute.
The rule of thumb is the closing argument should be as long as how much evidence the court received. If it is a two week long trial with over 100 exhibits the closing argument could be timed on a sundial. If the trial has one brief witness with a couple of exhibits then it is probably best to keep it short. I will not speculate on why the attorney in Owens kept their argument so brief. However, I would suggest that playing this clip from the Simpsons would have been a great way to tie in the theme of the case.
*** This blog represents the opinion of the law firm SailorsAllen Law and is not legal advice. If you need legal advice you should call an attorney. Preferably one from SailorsAllen Law, but really, any attorney. ***