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March 8, 2006

'I have never seen jurors convict a defendant when they're laughing with the defendant'


Donald Watkins, an attorney who, against all odds, secured a "not guilty" verdict for former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy on charges that he masterminded a $2.7 billion fraud.

Watkins was quoted in yesterday's USA Today story by Greg Farrell about the ongoing trial of Enron's Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling.

The thrust of the story was that, as noted in the newspaper's headline, Lay and Skilling are "doomed" as a result of poor defense tactics.

That may well be but I found Watkins' remark about humor in the courtroom far more interesting.

In my experience as an expert witness, members of a jury immediately become attentive and sympathetic if you: 1) amuse them and 2) educate them in such a way that you make them feel smarter for being able to follow your argument.

Most of what goes down in a courtroom is dreadfully boring; jurors get drowsy and fall asleep.

The best way to get them on your side is to wake them up.

You do that by making yourself — and what you have to say — 1) clear, 2) memorable and 3) funny.

When the jury laughs at someone, they've lost.

When the jury laughs with you, you're money.

Humor creates a rush of good feeling and predisposes those who create it to being regarded in a favorable light.

It's basic human psychology.

No one likes a bully: when I'm being cross–examined by a mean–spirited attorney who's yelling at me, not allowing me to finish my answers and calling me a liar and worse, by taking that vicious cut–and–thrust and redirecting it back out from the witness box toward the questioner, it becomes a powerful weapon that oftimes leads to the demise of the premise being put forth.

If, in the course of shifting the momentum 180°, I can elicit a chuckle or laugh from members of the jury, that's lagniappe and bodes very well when it comes time for them to deliberate.

March 8, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Joe, one of the funniest things I ever read was a short piece called "Take the Witness" by Robert Benchley, in which he imagines himself on the witness stand reducing the prosecution to a laughingstock. Amazon allows you to search contents of "The Benchley Roundup", and this link should take you to the whole story.

Posted by: cc | Mar 17, 2006 1:21:51 PM

One thing I have learned in the strange odyssey that has been my life, laughter is like a tsunami - there IS no fighting it, once it gets a roll going. If you're ever unfortunate enough to be the subject of the ridiculing type, there are only two ways to go with it. (Well, three, if you include trying to stop it, which just gives it more force.) You can suck it up and let it roll over you with all the grace you can muster (probably the best way 95% of the time) and it will die out fairly quickly, meeting no resistance, or, you can stand it on its head and turn it inside out, which is kind of like an attack by surprise, and have people laughing still AT you, most likely, but also definitely with you. But that last one is a real art. I known a few people who are masters; I've done it maybe twice in my life, when it really counted.

Laughter fascinates me more than anything human, I think. It simply will not be pinned down. It goes where it goes.

Wow, am I getting all Zen, here?

Posted by: Flutist | Mar 8, 2006 1:50:11 PM

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