An American judge talking to a lawyer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
After every trial, I try to talk with the individual jurors who heard my case. It helps me as a trial lawyer determine what strategy and tactics worked and what didn’t. I will also ask them what information they wanted but never got and what questions they had that never got answered. Sometimes they even tell me about the assumptions they made on issues even if no evidence was presented in trial. They almost always want to know what the attorneys and the judge were whispering about at the bench where they couldn’t hear.
It seems somewhat counterintuitive, especially in the age of instant, on-line information, but literally over two hundred years of statutes, rules and judge’s decisions have tried to limit the information presented to a jury for their decision in a trial. The main question is what the law has decided is relevant to a case. The North Carolina rules of evidence say that anything is relevant if it makes any fact of consequence more probable or less probable than without that fact. Simple right? Sometimes it is and a non-lawyer can easily see that. For example, where a car wreck happened on a sunny day without a cloud in the sky, it is probably not relevant that the defendant car’s windshield wiper blades were old. However, from the simple idea of relevance comes a host of fact-specific things that are relevant or not relevant for a trial that might not be apparent to a non-lawyer. For example, a non-lawyer might think that the fact that in our car wreck that the defendant driver had one or two prior car wrecks makes it more probable that the car wreck at issue in the trial was the defendant’s fault. Honestly, that non-lawyer might even be right (I certainly think prior acts of my kids are relevant when I am trying to figure out how the cookie jar got broken). However, the law has decided that in most cases, if a person did something before, it doesn’t mean they did it this time. Another example is insurance. If a juror knows that a particular injured party has insurance, they might be more likely to not make the at fault party pay as much. On the other hand, they might award more damages since they know an insurance company is paying for it and not out of the pocket of a sympathetic defendant. A lot of the conversations and arguments between attorneys and the judge and a lot of the objections at trial go to this underlying issue of relevance. Trials are very fact specific, so at almost every trial there is a small wrinkle in the law where the attorneys can argue whether a fact is relevant or not or if a fact can come in or not.
It is important to only decide a case as a juror based on the evidence you hear. The judge and lawyers are not just making up what is important and what is not. They are relying on literally over two hundred years of fine-tuning the law and the jury system. If the judge makes a mistake, or some relevant information was left out for no sound reason, the case can be appealed and the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court can decide it was the wrong thing to do. That opinion will be written down and the next trial with a similar issue will have more guidance on the correct course of action.
-Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC who practices in Personal Injury, Car Accidents, Medical Malpractice, Contract and Real Estate disputes, and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910) 772-1678.