Trial Practice

by Cary J. Hansel

Done well, a trial is elegantly violent theater...
 an able trial lawyer must be one part director,
 one part actor and all pugilist.

The practice of law is an art, not a science.  This is doubly true for trial work.  Choosing a jury, marshalling witnesses and evidence, and knowing what to present, when and how are just the tip of the iceberg.  A trial lawyer worth his salt considers not just these obvious chores, but how to shape every subtlety knowable by the judge and jury.  This is where the true artistry begins...

Record-Setting Civil Rights Trial Verdicts and Actual Courtroom Video

In 2006, I won what was, at the time, the highest verdict ever against Prince George's County, Maryland in a police misconduct matter.  Since that time, I have obtained national record verdicts in two police dog shooting cases, as well as the highest verdict in Maryland history for correctional misconduct.

These cases all start with an opening statement - a lawyer's first chance to speak directly to the jury.  We do a lot that sets us apart in the courtroom, but we are also proud to offer you something here that many lawyers do not: a chance to watch us work.   
Click here for the opening statement that lead to a $25 Million civil rights verdict: 

Winning by pin...

In early September of 2001, I was finishing my preparations for a trial.  My clients were small businessmen who'd caught an employee stealing.  The owners offered to allow the thief to pay them back instead of referring the matter to law enforcement.  The former employee signed a handwritten note for the amount and his former employers let him go on his way.

For their kindness, they were rewarded with a lawsuit in which the perpetrator played the victim.  In order to avoid his repayment obligation, the thief alleged that the business owners had beaten him, forcing him to sign.  Never mind that my clients were distinguished businessmen well into middle age, or that the note was for a sum that these gentlemen routinely spent on dinner. The thief not only sued them to avoid his obligations, he sought hundreds of thousands in damages for the phantom beating.

The odds were seemingly in my favor, until the planes hit the Twin Towers a week before trial. Until that moment, I didn't think anything of my clients' Pakistani heritage.

In case the fact is lost to history in the maelstrom that followed 9/11, I should remind readers that even seeming vaguely Middle Eastern in the weeks following the attacks was a dangerous liability.  But here my clients were, with strong Pakistani accents and the complexions to match.  They were about to be tried for assault and battery before a jury of their post-9/11 peers.  The jurors all lived within miles of the Pentagon – some probably saw the smoke over their houses on that Tuesday.

Wanting to ensure a fair trial, I spent the night before trial shopping for US flag pins, making sure that no two matched so the jury would not infer an orchestrated effort.  I was embarrassed when I quietly handed them out the morning of trial, but my clients loved the pins, wore them throughout, and still proudly wear them today – long after the rest of us have set aside our post-9/11 shows of overt patriotism.

I'm proud to say that this jury reinforced my faith in America’s judicial system. Time and again, I have seen juries collectively arrive at elegant solutions to complex problems – often more just that what either side advocated.

Building our case...

There is something about the night before trial.  True preparations are over days before, so nothing is left to chance.  The night before, there is little to do but get some sleep – but far too much nervous energy for that.  I spent one particular trial eve in the basement with my associate and enough tools to make a journeyman carpenter proud. 

My client was a social worker with a master’s degree from a prestigious university. Wanting to help Maryland’s neediest children, she took a job working the night shift at a shelter for homeless youth. The work was rewarding, but everyday life was tough: she made little money,  lived in a low-income apartment building and slept during the day after working all night. 

When two rogue police officers arrived at her door with the wrong address, they assumed that an African American woman living in that neighborhood and sleeping in the middle of the day was someone no one would believe.  So, when she honestly told them the man they were looking for wasn't there and didn't live there, they forced their way in and assaulted her with punches, kicks, batons and pepper spray. 

Terrified by their violence, she did not believe they were real police officers.  She ran into the hall and pounded on her neighbors' doors for help.  Her neighbors testified at trial that she was begging for someone to call the police. 

Eventually, the police chased her outside and roughed her up there.  When they saw she was only wearing a bathrobe, they brought her a skirt and t-shirt from the dirty clothes hamper and forced her to dress in the parking lot, in full view of her gathered neighbors.

The case amounted to my client’s word against two men with badges to vouch for them and training from the police academy on how to testify in court.  They had offered testimony in more cases than I had tried back in those days...

...which is why I was in the basement late into the evening the night before trial.  All the lawyering was done.  Everything I could do with law books and computers had been put to bed days ago.  So, it was time to break out the power tools.

The next day, when the first officer took the stand, I had him carefully describe every aspect of the encounter in microscopic detail.  This was clearly trying not only his patience, but that of the judge.  Hidden innocuously in those details were the few specific points I needed: my client allegedly hit him with her right hand, which is why he claimed to have used force; and the door swung inward and the hinges were on his left with the knob on his right as he faced it from the outside.

Once this much was established, my associate wheeled in our creation from its hiding place in an adjacent room.  It was a full exterior door – knob, frame and all – with the hinges on the left and swinging in.  After all of the minutiae I had covered with the officer, the door's entry into the room grabbed every juror's attention.

I invited the officer down from the stand and had him position himself on the inside of the door just where he said my client had stood.  At my request, he opened it the width of his knee, just as he said she had done.

Suddenly, the officer saw that this was not a door, but a giant mousetrap.  From inside, where he stood, the hinges were on his right.  As the door swung in and toward him, it blocked any conceivable access to my face that his fist might have had. 

There was no way my client could have punched him on his left jaw line with her right hand as he claimed: the door was in the way. 

The officer became furious as he realized he was caught.  I invited him to hit me as hard as he wanted (if he could) using his right hand.  Judging by the thud his fist made when it hit the solid door, I'd say he'd hoped to punch through it. 

The jury rendered a six-figure verdict in favor of my client, who went back to helping the homeless.
Here is a link to the opinion eventually issued in our favor by the Court of Appeals:
To read newspaper articles about the case, please click here:

A real courtroom brawl...

Trials are won in the office, not the courtroom.  For every hour in trial, 10 hours are spent in preparation.  This includes deposing witnesses in advance, which is not just a chance to gather information, but also to learn what makes them tick and how they should be approached in court...

...which is how I knew what it took to wind up the six-foot-five combat-sports athlete behind the badge on the stand in front of me.  About half way through the dance, when he was boiling over and we'd both raised our voices to just below the judge's contempt threshold, he finally took the bait.  As our voices grew louder and the tempo became faster, he finally blurted out that it would be much easier to explain what he had done to my petite female client if he could just show me.

This is one of those moments you always hope for, but never really expect.  I immediately waived him down and said, "come on" in my best courtroom tough guy voice.  His lawyer was beside himself, but just as trapped as his client.  If the lawyer objected, it would look like he was trying to hide from the jury what the officer had done to my client.  If he said nothing, the jury was about to see his client engage in a near fight in the well of the courtroom.  The judge was on the edge of her seat waiting to grant the objection that never came.

The muscle-head on the stand stood up quickly, revealing a powerful physique.  He was on me in about two bounds.  I was the captain of my high school wrestling team and wrestled in college, but he genuinely surprised me.  I was on the ground in a second or less with my head ground into the carpet and my arms violently twisted up behind me.  His knee – with all his weight and force – was planted deep in my back.  After two hours of tense cross-examination, his pleasure in the attack was evident and I didn't have to rely much on my acting chops for the jury to see that this was a violent man, prone to exactly the type of outburst my client had described.