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A dicey situation.

It was the case of my career, the moment I'd been working toward for years, that summit I'd been trudging toward every day since I started this crazy work as a trial lawyer two decades ago. It was the morning of the opening statement, and as we walked to the courthouse, my young client nervously asked, "Jeff, what's going to happen today?"

My sage and confident assurance was the same as it had been so many times before, "In trial, expect the unexpected. You just never know. It's a crapshoot, Kid."

I was ready. Ready to deliver the opening statement in a case that felt like the most important one I'd ever tried. I'd stood before many juries and against the Catholic church hierarchy before, but this case meant more than any other. This case involved a moral imperative. I would expose the church hierarchy's concealing of sexual abuse by pedophile priests.

The pressure I felt was immense. On the evening before the scheduled opening, the pressure mounted with last-minute settlement negotiations. The judge seemed to sense that once opening was delivered and reported by the hovering press, any opportunity for settlement would be lost.

At the 11th hour, the diocese offered millions to settle. The judge was aghast when I said, "We can't settle completely and quietly without exposing this cover-up. If we do, the duplicity and deception of the church will just continue."

The judge listened respectfully, but he could not disguise his impatience when he abruptly declared an impasse and said, "Opening statements to begin tomorrow at 9 a.m. sharp."

The jury had been carefully selected, but it was drawn from a heavily Catholic, blue-collar farm community. Proving breach of trust and betrayal of truth by the most revered members of the community would be a daunting challenge.

During voir dire, many jurors had reflected the view that priests and bishops don't lie and that they would have a hard time believing that any priest or bishop would. We were swimming upstream.

I knew we had to capture the jury in opening statement, using detail and documents. In opening I usually give a big-picture overview of a case. That would not work here. This story spanned decades and included many discrete events, dates, and characters. Our trial team had meticulously planned and prepared large storyboards that detailed the chronology and cast of characters. The boards spelled out what the bishops knew, when they knew it, and how all the bishops and all the bishops' men covered up the sexual abuse. The opening would take about four hours to deliver, and I planned to use the boards as my only notes and as a road map for the jury.

Nine a.m. sharp. The courtroom was crammed with spectators, supporters, survivors, and press. The front row was reserved for sketch artists; cameras weren't allowed inside, but some lenses peered through a small window in the rear door.

The judge took the bench and asked, "Are the parties ready to proceed with opening remarks? If so, Bailiff, please summon the jury."

"Your Honor, there is one final matter," the defense lawyer replied to the judge. "Mr. Anderson has those boards he intends to use during opening statement, and we object to their use."

"These boards are the same ones I have shown the court and defense counsel before," I said. "They detail the complex series of events. When I showed them to defense counsel, they objected to only one minor part, and that has been deleted."

"The boards will not be used in opening statement, period," the judge ruled.

"But, but, but, Your Honor."

"I have ruled. I will hear no more. Bring the jury in."

I was paralyzed. My heartbeat doubled, then tripled. Short of breath, I started to pant. My eyes bulged. I was a claustrophobic in a sinking submarine. Terror momentarily robbed my strength. Melville knew my disquietude when he wrote of fear:

"Ignorance is the parent of fear. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event in the living act, the undoubted deed, there some unknown, but still reasoning, thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask."

With no place to hide or run, I had no choice but to go forward. I peered out from behind my pasteboard mask and delivered the opening without my crutch--the boards--using flip charts and scribbling the details in my own hand.

Opening took four hours or so as I'd expected, and somehow I had relayed the imperative message without any noticeable fumbling.

The jury heard the message and delivered justice with a sizable verdict.

As for me, I'm recovering, and I'm still dispensing the same advice. In trial, expect the unexpected. You just never know. It's a crapshoot, Kid.

Jeffrey R. Anderson is a partner with the firm of Reinhardt & Anderson in St. Paul Minnesota
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Author:Anderson, Jeffrey R.
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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