Defining a Complex Case

“Have you ever had a murder trial?”

That question arises in conversation again and again. When someone discovers my job as a trial lawyer for military criminal cases, it is inevitably one of the first questions they ask.

Finally, I started asking why.

Their answer? It must have been hard, exciting, or both.

I don’t blame them for the perspective. Murder cases make movies and episode after episode of Law and Order and CSI. They look titillating, full of twists, turns and exciting posturing on the part of the attorneys. They involve a dead human.

In truth, I can think of many non-murder cases that were more complex and stressful than the homicides (and alleged ones) I’ve  been associated with. Right now, the Department of Defense is handling a rash of fraud cases involving military Reservists who are found by their accounting department to have defrauded the government of thousands of dollars (some individuals are even in the hundreds of thousands). These cases are complex, involve multiple experts, mounds of paperwork, and weeks of research on the part of the attorneys involved.

At the same time, I can think of some cases of Absence Without Leave (AWOL (the military can prosecute you for not showing-up to work)) that were more exciting in story than a lot of murders. The last AWOL case of mine involved sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and the story my client told me about his adventures had me truly amazed. He is an incredibly bright young man, and he used his intellect to cultivate an entire field of hedonism while he was AWOL.

So, a lot of excitement comes from a murder case, but we shouldn’t assume that it must be more complex or exciting than others. Some lawyers fall into this trap, and it causes their practice to suffer. They focus so much attention on their homicide cases that they forget that their other cases deserve the same amount of attention. After all, the shoplifting client expects our help just as much as the quadruple murder/rape guy. I actually heard a prosecutor explain a mistake by saying “well, I was focused on next week’s case.” She said this as the judge summarily dismissed the most serious charges against my client because she failed to corroborate his confession. I felt great for my client but ashamed of my colleague. Thank goodness it wasn’t one of my defense peers.

What is the point of all this?  We should focus on the elements of the crimes charged, the difficulty in defending them, and the needs of our client. The actual name of the charged crime matters not. Securing them a solid defense should be the primary concern. Just because the word Murder is part of the equation does not make it the most difficult case on your books.

It reminds me of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. You know, the part where Dr. Seuss reminds us “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”  Well, a client is a client, no matter how small.