I have been thinking a lot about my personal bias when I meet a client. As much as I would like to think that I am above personal bias and that I can just listen to the facts and look past the person’s physical characteristics or mannerisms, I am reminded of the defense I helped prepare for a gentleman who was accused of continuous sexual assault of his step daughter every day for four years. As I reviewed the facts of that case I felt confident this guy was innocent. He was a good father, he had a great job, the accuser had a track of being a “wolf crier”, and she was deeply troubled. The defendant was active in all his children’s lives and was an all-around good guy. Most importantly the facts did not match the accusations she made. On paper when I was looking at the facts I felt confident this man was innocent, in fact there was no doubt in my mind.
Then I met him… And as soon as I laid eyes on him something turned and I felt 100% that he was guilty. It hit me like a thunderbolt and I kind of began to panic. I didn’t want to let the attorney down who asked me to help prepare this guy for trial, after all he was one of the nation’s top criminal defense attorneys . Also, I had reviewed the evidence and on its face this guy was innocent. But when I laid eyes on him he looked like a sexual predator. He fit the profile to a tee or better yet he fit my profile of what a sexual molester looks like to a tee. He was tall and thin except for a distended stomach which bulged over his belt; he had a narrow chin, dark piercing eyes and had a hard time making eye contact. He was partially bald and just creepy looking. His whole demeanor seemed to scream guilty to me. Enough that I was contemplating just walking out and not listening to anything he had to say. Then I thought about how important it was to stay and hear what he had to say. Because, if I was having this reaction to this man, when I have seen all the evidence and felt it cleared him completely, what was a person from the jury do?
So I stayed, I worked and I listened to this man and his story. I fought him hard during the trial preparation and on six separate occasions I told him to his face I was sure he was guilty and at one point he began to cry. Then he began to let his guard down and we met the real man. At that point I started to turn and again believed that he was in fact totally innocent. We worked with him for another three full days. Then he had a four day jury trial at which point the jury found him not guilty of all charges. He had one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the country in my opinion, lots of preparation and he really was innocent.
What this case taught me was how powerful personal bias is and how important it is to not turn a blind eye to it. We must be able to identify the parts of a person that a jury might not like. Parts that are apart from the fact if the client is black in a predominately white area, or covered in tattoos, or is Muslim, has a facial tick, is very shy. This list is long and the fact is everyone possesses something that can turn a potential juror off so its important that the person defending can be honest with their selves and will spend the time to help identify these biases and address them with the jury so the jury can look past this and listen to the facts in evidence.