A bad influence, a racist HOA member, and a corrupt system could have changed the entire course of this young man’s life. TLC’s 7-step graduate James Sullivan helped his client as they fought to change it.
Congratulations on your win, Jim. Can you tell us about the case?
The case involves a 15 year old Hispanic boy. I received a call from his mother telling me her son was charged with a felony of deadly conduct, that he didnt do it, that a surveillance video proves it and that his court-appointed attorney was not helping him. Her son allegedly shot a stop sign and in the direction of an occupied home in their neighborhood. I agreed to take his case. I didn’t think that I would have to try the case because it had been captured on videotape. The faces of the two males are hard to see but you can distinguish their body shapes, hair styles and gait so it was clear it was not this young man. I thought that anybody could see, and that with some representation, this case would be dismissed. I had just received a copy of the video a few days before. At that next setting, I showed the prosecutor an enhanced image from the video and, much to my surprise, the prosecutor refused to dismiss it. By then, my innocent client had already been locked up for a month. We then had his first detention hearing before the elected judge, and the judge refused to hear from family members willing to supervise my client and hastily ruled to keep him detained. I was so outraged by the injustice that I asked for a jury trial setting. Before TLC, I might not have moved that quickly, but I knew the story, knew my client, and believed we would prevail. We were able to get a jury trial setting within three weeks, which is unheard of in this county. (In fact, jury trials are rare in juvenile court because attorneys are approved for the appointment list in exchange for contributions to judges election campaigns and are then strongly urged to have bench trials). In that time, I found eight witnesses, four who knew both my client and the guy who was the actual shooter — a 21-year-old man who was a bad influence in the neighborhood. My client was walking with him but was telling him not to shoot his gun. After he shot the sign, the man walked around the corner, stopped in front of a witness’ house and shot twice more in the air. The witness recognized the shooter, came outside and saw both the shooter and my client go down the street. He saw the shooter throw down a 40 ounce malt liquor bottle. In the video, he’s actually holding the bottle. The guy was drunk. The shooter was arrested later that night with his gun and charged with unlawfully carrying a weapon. (Two days later he pled guilty in court to time served). My client was detained and released. The next morning a homeowner discovered that his security camera caught the shooting of the stop sign. He showed the video to two HOA members, the president and another board member, and they said that it was definitely my client who was the shooter. The shooter wore white pants and a red shirt. My client wore khaki pants and a black shirt. Coincidentally that afternoon my client was arrested wearing similar colored clothing as the shooter. The two HOA members used that similarity to convince the arresting officer that my client was the shooter and the one in black must be a young friend of his. (I learned later they hated my client because he would skip school, hang out in the park with his buddies and smoke weed. He didn’t own or carry a gun, but it wasn’t comfortable having him in the neighborhood.) I think they thought they could just lie about what happened and my client would plead guilty and be sent away. At trial, I had my client wear the same clothing he wore that night. On direct, the arresting officer and both HOA members claimed they recognized my client as the shooter in the video. When the HOA president took the stand, he even called my client a “peckerwood” before he was even asked a question from the State. The other HOA board member also appeared to be racist, and on the stand he just wanted to argue about any and everything. The State did not plan to introduce photos from the video; they just brought the video in which you couldn’t really see the two men that well. On cross, when I questioned the officer with my enhanced photo from the video, he admitted he couldnt even identify the race or ethnicity of the shooter! And, when I asked the HOA board member on cross if he could recognize my client in the photo, he carefully studied the photo, looked over counsel table at my client and then said “Yes, that’s him in the black shirt.” I asked “Are you 100% positive about that?” He responded “Yes, sir, I am”. I passed the witness. The States main witness had just identified my client as the non-shooter! My client, a young 15 year old boy, spent 7 weeks in detention for a crime he did not commit and I knew his pain. Getting the “Not Guilty” verdict for him and watching him finally go home with his mom and family was a huge win for him, his future, his family, and a testament for all I learned at the College.
Tell us about your Closing Argument.
I had not prepared a Closing Argument because in most cases I prefer to let the facts, and my feelings of outrage, marinate for a little while before speaking off the cuff. I got up and slowly walked up to the jury box, and I stood there with open palms. It was pretty clear that I was emotional. I knew from the College that I could be comfortable with my emotions. I also remembered from the College all I had learned from Josh Karton. In the past I would just launch into an extemporaneous argument slightly tinged with emotion without making direct eye contact with the jurors, but now I tried for me a radically new approach. I held the first juror’s gaze for several seconds. Then I did the same with each individual juror as I slowly made my way down the line. By the time I reached the end of both rows and looked back, almost all 12 jurors were teary-eyed like me, and I had not even spoken a word! It was so powerful. They mirrored my emotion. My closing arguments have always had some emotion in them, but they were not nearly as demonstrable as they are now. I did not trust this judge, but I knew the jury would do the right thing. There was nothing to dispute — the States witnesses lied. I reminded the jury that these witnesses were not mistaken, they had actually lied. I pointed out that the government did not fully investigate the case. The government shut a blind eye to the obvious evidence and went full steam ahead to prosecute an innocent boy. The government let the shooter off with only 2 days in jail and were trying railroad a child for something he didnt do. I concluded by saying, “After you come back with the right decision, I ask you to call the elected DA and tell her to file charges against the actual shooter.” I didn’t know if they could under the law, but the point is, it would be an admission that not only did they arrest the wrong person, but they prosecuted all the way to trial the wrong person. I was outraged and I wanted the jury to feel that outrage and to know they could do something about it. It was a simple case that could have gone very wrong for my client. His NG changed the course of his life. By the way, when I am defending juveniles, I spend a lot of time encouraging my clients to get on the right path in life to be successful, and I share my life story to inspire them. Since his exoneration, my client is now living in a different neighborhood with his aunt, doing well in school and no longer doing drugs.
You said that you could really relate to juveniles because of your experiences in your past. Do you work with juveniles mostly?
Well, yes, but not as much as I would like to. I mainly defend clients charged with felony offenses in both criminal and juvenile courts. My path through life has given me a unique understanding of the injustices that happen to many juveniles, many of which are far beyond their control, and has also given me a big heart to care for my clients. At TLC, I was able to come to terms with my own past, which gives me the ability to hear and understand juveniles, and help them to make the changes necessary to become solid, contributing adult members of our society.
What was it that drew you to the practice of law?
In college, several other members of the journalism class were talking about going to law school. At that time, I didnt think I had the people skills to be a good journalist, I didn’t like the idea of deadlines and part of my ego also said, “Why not law school? Maybe I could make the story, rather than cover the story.” Plus I learned in journalism how to investigate and tell a story persuasively. Going to TLC and learning how to really focus on the emotional content of the story, not only with clients to develop their stories, but more importantly with jurors in trial, really took it to the next level.
What brought you to the Trial Lawyer’s College?
Four years ago, on a whim, I decided to go to TLC’s Regional Seminar in Round Top, TX. My first full day session actually took place on the stage of an old theatre, and it blew my mind. I was working with another attorney on warm up exercises and we were talking about our fathers and playing chair back and role reversal when it suddenly struck me that for 30 years I had suppressed from my memory a heartbreaking experience. I mean I had totally blocked it from the core of my being for reasons that I now know were for self-preservation. I was already emotional and they then asked, “Well, who would like to work on a story?” I had no idea what they were talking about, but I’m thinking “No, I don’t want to work on a story”. It was just too painful. I really, really didn’t want to do it, but when they asked each of us what story we might work on, I said “I just remembered when my father rejected me — I was 14”. That struck a pretty big nerve in the group and almost everyone wanted to work on my story. With the guidance of psychodramatist Mary Jo Amatruda, I proceeded to tell my story and for brief moments it was so intense that I almost felt I was having an out of body experience while we were reenacting it. That’s how surreal it was. As the protagonist, I felt like I was having the conversation with my father that I wished we had had and the back and forth role reversing with him with the help of auxiliary characters was extremely cathartic and enlightening. By the end of that 30 minute exercise, I was reduced to a pool of tears. That one psychodrama exercise changed my life. It allowed me to breakthrough 3 decades of emotional crud, to glean a full understanding of that past experience from both sides, and in so doing it also released a huge bottleneck of creativity. Later insight made me understand how I could utilize all of the skills taught at the Trial Lawyer’s College. That’s how that started. If I had known back in the late 90s what a profound difference this would make in my life and in my practice, I would have gone then. Just that one experience so profoundly moved me that I just wanted to keep going. I love this process so much I couldn’t wait another year to learn more, so I decided to do the 7 Step program and I started going all over the country to attend Regionals.
You are a graduate of TLC through the 7 Step Program, instead of the 3-week program at the Thunderhead Ranch Campus. What was that process like for you as you attended 6 Regional Seminars in order to qualify for graduation?
It was great. I’m one of those people who like to take things in slowly and to really understand and digest them. I think that if I had gone through a three week program – I don’t think I could’ve learned and retained the course that well, so the 7 Step for me personally worked out better. Also, by attending seminars in Illinois and in California, I was able to meet and gain insight from more TLC lawyers from other parts of the country.
James Sullivan is a Houston defense attorney who for over 20 years has fought the government in jury trials on behalf of clients in criminal and juvenile courts. Sullivan has been able to get hundreds of serious criminal and juvenile cases dismissed. Sullivan is also certified in juvenile law by the Texas board of legal specialization.