First Murder Trial? Consider the Facts

Stephanie Morales, a 32-year-old prosecutor handling her first murder trial, looked across the courtroom at her opponent — the community’s best known criminal defense attorney.

James Broccoletti , who had been practicing criminal law longer than his opponent had been alive, was defending his fourth client against murder charges in three months. All three of his other cases ended in acquittal or dismissal.

“There seems to be somewhat of a mismatch as far as the lawyer for the commonwealth and the lawyer for the defense,” said former Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey Bryant. “Experience is very important.”

So how did Morales do in her first murder trial against the toughest opponent in town? Here are some things to remember:

Know the Facts

The trial involved a former police officer, who shot and killed an unarmed man in a Walmart parking lot. The officer was white; the victim was black.

As Black Lives Matter was getting national attention, the case put Portsmouth, Virginia, on the map. And Morales, who was admitted to law practice in 2010, was on the spot when she entered the courtroom in July 2016. She wanted a first-degree murder, but got a voluntary manslaughter conviction.

However, as legal observers said at the time, cases depend on facts. Attorneys, experienced or not, have to deal with the same facts.

“If the facts are in your favor, you can usually win a case. If they are not, you won’t,” said Jeffrey Bellin, a professor at William & Mary Law School.

Present the Facts

If you are working for a prosecutor’s office, you already have an advantage when it comes to facts. The facts got there through the sifting processes of probable cause and a sufficiency to hold.

If you are defending, on the other hand, you have the misfortune that your client will never present any facts because the cardinal sin is to put a criminal defendant on the witness stand. Not to mention, statistics say the overwhelming majority of felony defendants plead guilty or are convicted.

In either case, the litigator’s adage applies in murder trials, too: If you don’t have the facts, argue the law. In other words, do your research, file necessary motions, prepare your witnesses, lodge objections, ask for rulings and seek appropriate post-trial remedies.

The court record will continue with the case for many years, unlike lawyers who try cases and then move on. Carmen A. Trutanich, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor and Los Angeles City Attorney, learned this the hard way.

A federal judge reversed a murder conviction Trutanich secured more than 30 years earlier. The State Bar is now recommending disciplinary action against him for withholding facts in the case.

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