The law offers a great many obvious scenarios for compelling fiction. Just think about the primal needs and fears that can be evoked in a story about child custody or adoption, or a dispute between relatives over the validity of a will, or a struggle against foreclosure — not to mention serious criminal charges. Or a story could venture onto less familiar legal battlefields that — believe me! — offer plenty of drama and intensity: grandparent visitation, termination of parental rights, civil asset forfeiture, civil commitment, civil contempt.
Aside from all these substantive areas, almost every stage of pretrial preparation and trial can be mined for dramatic content. Here’s one example.
At the conclusion of a jury trial, a single juror, the foreperson, announces the verdict. But if the losing attorney suspects that any of the jurors is not 100% content with the verdict, there’s a way to put every juror to the test: “polling the jury.”
The jury may be polled in either a criminal or a civil case, upon request of either party or on the judge’s own initiative. The judge asks each juror to state aloud, in the courtroom (“in open court”), whether the verdict announced by the foreperson is that juror’s verdict. If there is more than one charge (in a criminal case) or cause of action (in a civil case), a sensible judge will do a separate poll for each.
What if at least one juror breaks ranks and says that no, that verdict isn’t right after all? Well, once the gasps and muttering from any spectators die down, the judge may either order the jury to go back and deliberate so more or else declare a mistrial. A mistrial means that the case must be tried all over, unless the prosecution in a criminal case or the plaintiff in a civil suit decides it isn’t worth the trouble and expense.
It would be a particularly good idea for an attorney to have the jury polled if the jurors had previously told the judge they were deadlocked (unable to come to an agreement), and only reached a verdict after being sent back to try again; or if the verdict form shows possibly inconsistent verdicts or other jury confusion.
If an author wants the judge to misbehave in connection with polling the jury, there are several possibilities. For example, the judge could refuse a request to poll the jury; coerce a juror to adhere to the announced verdict, or to disclaim it; or implicitly coerce one or more jurors by polling the jury over and over on the same charge or cause of action.
Here’s a more specific story suggestion. A prejudiced or corrupt judge, financially or emotionally invested in the victory of one party or the defeat of another, rejoices over the announced verdict, or is improperly responsible for it. When an attorney requests that the jury be polled, the judge bristles and tries to intimidate the attorney into withdrawing the request. Failing at that, the judge orders all spectators to clear the courtroom, thus violating the “open court” aspect of the procedure. When a juror, with trembling knees and voice, reveals that he or she doesn’t support the verdict, the judge browbeats the juror into stating support for the verdict after all. The court reporter’s transcription of these events mysteriously disappears, and the attorney must convince one or more of the jurors to help see justice done. . . .
If you go forth and learn more about the legal system, you’ll find an ample reward in the abundant possibilities it offers the writer.
Karen A. Wyle is an appellate attorney with more than thirty years’ experience. A cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, she worked for law firms and the California Court of Appeal before establishing her solo practice in Bloomington, Indiana. Wyle has filed amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court and seven state supreme courts. She has also written and published five novels. One-quarter of her novel Division is set in a near-future courtroom.
Wyle’s reference work Closest to the Fire: A Writer’s Guide to Law and Lawyers comes out this October in paperback and ebook. Information about the book, including its Table of Contents and a link to the paperback Index, as well as “Online Extras” and links to Wyle’s professional and fiction websites, may be found at http://www.cttf.karenawyle.net. Wyle’s Facebook author page is at http://www.facebook.com/KarenAWyle; her Twitter handle is @WordsmithWyle.