IndyBar: Johnnie Cochran-ing, Larry Landis and “Some Skills”

iba-pres-bell-james-2018Larry Landis spent a career training lawyers and making certain our system of justice protected every member of our community. About a month ago, Larry received a send-off dinner from the adjunct professors who, for decades, had donated their Saturday mornings to teach Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law students trial practice. In attendance were judges, trial lawyers, law school deans and a room full of Larry’s former students, including me.

After being praised as a “credible” advocate by a member of the General Assembly, Larry noted that his secret to achieving “credibility” was simply being honest. When he spoke about his trial practice class, Larry could’ve been dishonest and told the trial practice alumni that they entered the class as brilliant legal scholars and left orating like Clarence Darrow, but Larry wanted one more night of credibility. So instead, he said that students entered his class with “no skills” and left with (get this) only “some skills.”

The term “some skills” sadly reminded me of my first jury trial. At the time of my first jury, I was a 26-year-old public defender who had only been a lawyer for about a year. I had spent some time in misdemeanor court and was brand new to the late, great, Judge Good’s D felony court. While D felony court was not nearly as intense as major felony court, when I first got there, I still felt somewhat lost as I dealt with minimum sentences, threats of the habitual offender and an all-around better chance of going to jail. (For the client. Not the lawyer.)

Just when I started to get acclimated to Court 15, I remember walking to the back door of the courtroom during a court session to make a quick visit to the holding cell when Judge Good said, “Mr. Bell, you’re appointed. Fast and speedy jury trial on the 27th.” As I arrived at the bench where Judge Good addressed parties during short hearings, I did some quick math and wondered if he meant the trial was really in 18 days. Like always, the deputy prosecutor (a good friend of mine), the defendant and I were huddled together like an offensive line and inches from Judge Good. “Get me out of this,” my client said to me confidentially (and in front of the whole courtroom.) To instill confidence in my new client, I looked at him and responded with “uh . . . OK.”

My client had been on warrant-status for several years, so Judge Good set his bond at a bazillion dollars (American) and my client walked back to the holding cell. As he did, my anxiety level began to rise. I was 18 days from my first jury trial and my “overwhelmed-o-meter” reached Defcon 5.

My client was named Anthony1 and I’m sure if he could’ve, he would’ve selected someone else to be his lawyer after our stellar initial encounter. Why wouldn’t he? I had never been lead counsel in a jury trial before, and I had 18 days to get prepared. As our courts often point out, while Anthony was entitled to counsel, he was not entitled to the counsel of his choosing. In other words, he was entitled to me whether he liked it or not.

And it’s not like I felt pressure or anything. I had only spent three years of my life and borrowed several thousand dollars banking on the fact that I could try a case and make a living as a lawyer. Now that my opportunity arrived, I started to doubt myself. Luckily, I had one thing that I did not possess before I met Larry Landis: “some skills.”

So I put “some skills” to work. After 18 days of preparation, I put what I was taught into action and asked open-ended questions in voir dire and had jurors talk enough to know who I wanted to strike. I told a story in opening statement and I asked closed-ended questions on cross. For my case-in-chief, I called the lead detective to the stand for three minutes to show what was not done in the investigation and then I rested.

My closing was competent, but not a work of art. I restated the facts and made some arguments, but I really just remember sweating through my LS Ayres “3 for 1 Sale” suit and pleading to the jury that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict. The Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct only allow a lawyer to use the term “reasonable doubt” 147 times in a closing argument. I used the term 146 times and sat down.

When the jury went to deliberate, Anthony went back to his cell and I waited. I tried to talk to the line deputy, but he was mad at me because he had to babysit a prisoner all day. He told me that I should have pled the case out when I saw the prosecutor was going to use something he called a “Powerpoint.” Apparently, my 2001 poster board wasn’t fancy enough for the verdict to go my way.

The court staff paged me (remember pagers?) when the verdict came back. I sat down at counsel table and they brought Anthony out. Larry never taught us what to do when we were listening to the verdict, so I put my arm around Anthony and patted his back because I saw Johnnie Cochran do that when the OJ verdict came back. (How embarrassing).

As I was Cochran-ing, I thought about my conversation with the line deputy. He was correct that I did not make the best presentation that day. I would get better at the art of trial practice, but on that day, the prosecutor was more experienced, and I was green. But I had good facts, I believed in Anthony’s case and I thought we had a jury that would respect the burden of proof. Then the jury read the verdict: not guilty.

The only ones not surprised in the courtroom were Anthony and me. I was relieved, but Anthony had a look of “finally” on his face. He went back to the holding cell and waited for the paperwork to be processed for his release. On the record, I offered Anthony a ride home when he got out of jail. I thought Anthony was harmless. On the record, the senior judge filling in for Judge Good told me I was crazy. The record will not reflect that I simply nodded without comment.

In the end, Larry Landis gave me “some skills” and those skills were just enough to help Anthony. Larry has trained thousands of law students and lawyers, and as he goes into retirement, we should remember that when someone like Larry takes the time to teach another attorney, the true recipient of that training is a client and a member of our community. If you mentor a younger lawyer, you impact the Anthonys of the world. You impact someone you will never meet and who will never say thank you, but you are making a difference nevertheless.

So Larry, in the spirit of your example and the example of your team of generous Saturday morning adjuncts, the IndyBar has and will continue to provide justice to our community, in part, by mentoring, training and otherwise helping attorneys and law students in our Association. On behalf of the IndyBar, we congratulate you on a successful career dedicated to fairness and on behalf of lawyers like me and clients like Anthony, we thank you for your contributions to our profession. •

1For the sake of this column, I changed my client’s name and several details of the case for the sake of confidentiality.

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