From a manslaughter case, to one involving patent infringement, Ronald Schutz shares lessons learnt during his journey as a trial lawyer, studying and representing some baffling cases out there…
Murder or Manslaughter?
Sgt. Breedan, shot at and murdered his wife using a .44 magnum revolver while two eyewitnesses and the couple’s own 2-year-old son were watching. He testified that he was pointing the gun at his wife in the first place as she was waving a knife at him after watching the horror movie “Friday the 13th”, and they were just joking around. There was evidence of some marital discord, but apparently no intent to actually kill her. He was not guilty of homicide but guilty on accounts of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a 1 year sentence, instead of life imprisonment. Sgt. Breedan, a weapons expert pointed the gun towards his wife and pulled on the trigger, his state of mind and intent was exactly the same as the lawyer in court, who was demonstrating the actions and immediately in a rapid and fluid motion, put the gun to his co-counsel’s temple and pulled the trigger. Everyone seated in the courtroom gasped. The lawyer then set the gun down and said “nothing further”. The jury acquitted Breedan of the murder charge.
Unexpected Documents at Trial
During a patent infringement case, Schuz represented a company owning some key patents on digital camera technology and the inventors worked on their invention during their spare time while keeping day jobs at Mirage Systems, a small California defence contractor firm. Canon developed a theory that Mirage Systems actually held the patents involved in the employment agreement between the inventors and the company. After resting their case in a multimillion-dollar trial St. Clair v. Canon, opposing counsel handed over some document that was not produced previously. Despite repeatedly asking if Canon struck a deal with Mirage, Canon stated that it complied with its discovery obligations and refused to produce any more documents. Judge Farnan then grilled and questioned Canon’s lawyer for more than 30 minutes. Canon’s lawyer insisted that they did not have to produce this document during the discovery phase. Judge Farnan then dismissed the ownership defence and referred to a special master, who found that Canon’s lawyers team were guilty of discovery misconduct. At trial, a $34.7 million verdict was won and the failure to produce that document was a costly mistake.
The trial prep routine
What the jury knows about any case is what they can see and hear when inside the courtroom, which is a small fraction of all that the trial team really knows. Lawyers must begin every case with a thorough review of all documented evidence as actual documents and papers admitted as exhibits in the trial are only a fraction of the documents available. Listing the 50 best and 50 worst documents, lawyers prepare using the 50 best documents to their advantage and how to defuse the 50 worst. Always use mock trials and focus groups with actual witnesses, for trial preparation and vital feedback. Review and rehearse the complete opening statement, critique it and then modify it as needed. The final piece of advice to a lawyer on the eve of any trial would be to construct a plan B. Trials never pan out exactly as expected and you must expect the unexpected and should always ask the question as to what could go wrong and come up with a quick response.