John Zelbst recently took a case with his son and co-counsel, Clay Zelbst, who is also a graduate of the Trial Lawyers College. Their client is a young man named Isaac, whom the State accused of second-degree murder, which carries up to life in prison, for shooting his best friend, Dalton, in the head while they were at a party two years ago. Isaac was in his bedroom with two friends, Dalton and Marcus, both of whom were sitting on Isaac’s bed. When Marcus got off the bed to leave the room, he heard a gunshot. Marcus testified that he saw Dalton slowly falling backward, that Isaac told him, “Dalton shot himself, and that is the story we are going to stick to”, and that Isaac put his gun in Dalton’s hand. To further complicate matters, when Isaac was later interviewed by Detective Brown, he lied and claimed that he was not in the room when the gun went off, and, best as he could figure, Dalton must have accidentally shot himself.
Isaac repeatedly lied to his friends about what happened to Dalton, and they ultimately turned on him and testified against him at trial. The prosecution paraded former friends who testified that in the past, they had seen Isaac point a gun at others and ask, ‘Do you trust me?’. It was an attempt by the prosecution to bootstrap a conviction based on Isaac’s abhorrent behavior. However, through cross-examination, John and Clay brought out that Isaac pointing a gun at others was just a game that they all laughed off. The gun was never loaded when he played the game, and on the night of the shooting, no one saw Isaac with a gun.
John and Clay made the difficult decision to put Isaac on the stand to testify and explain not only why he lied, but why after lying to so many people for nearly two years, the jury should believe him now. John did the direct exam and knew that in this direct, he had to overcome the testimony of all eight accusing witnesses plus the homicide detective. In addition, Isaac is not an outwardly emotional person. He appeared to show no remorse over what happened, except during the 911 call, in which the jury could hear Isaac pleading with the 911 operator for help while his best friend died in his arms when he teared up. John and Clay addressed these bad facts during their case prep and throughout the trial with the methods taught at the Trial Lawyers College. They began by addressing these bad facts as their danger points during voir dire and John discussed them openly with their jury. John talked with the jury about the concept of a series of events of panicking, making mistakes, lying, and the ensuing confusion that results. He asked the jury, “If you don’t show emotion, does that mean you don’t have emotion?”
Throughout the trial, they also needed to show the jury that the deceased wasn’t a sweet and innocent man. John used the theme of ‘birds of a feather, flock together’ to help the jury understand that it was just a matter of time until something tragic happened to one of these young men due to their lifestyle. In fact, another one of Isaac’s best friends, Cody, died earlier in the year of another shooting; a tragic high-speed chase on a motorcycle.
One of their greatest danger points was the testimony of the lead detective, Detective Brown, who investigated the shooting. During cross-examination, John and Clay discovered that there were several witnesses, along with their contact information, whom the detective did not disclose. They also discovered that they had been provided faulty evidence by the detective — an altered copy of an original document. The pivotal moment came while John was questioning the detective about whether a document, which had been produced for the first time roughly five-minutes beforehand, was the original. “Yes”, the detective said, “it was drawn with a pencil.” John placed the document on the overhead projector and attempted to erase a line that was clearly not drawn with a pencil. There was a gasp in the courtroom. The judge had heard enough and excluded the detective from testifying and ordered his entire testimony to be stricken and instructed the jury to disregard it.
Finally, during their closing argument, John talked for three hours about the power of love. He reminded the jury of the officer’s falsified evidence and the number of witnesses who had not been contacted or been given the opportunity to give their statements of the evening’s events. John talked with the jury about the injustice of wrongful convictions and conveyed the idea that ‘this is how innocent people are convicted’. The jury members were brought to tears, and after the verdict, many told John his closing argument was powerful and beautiful.
After approximately three hours of deliberation, the jury sent out a note saying they were hung. Up until this time, there was a no plea offer on the table. At this point, the State offered a plea deal and as they were negotiating this with John and Clay, the jury sent out another note saying they had arrived at a verdict. Ultimately, Isaac decided to take the deal and pled to second-degree manslaughter, which is a non-violent felony for which he will have to serve roughly eleven months.
After the plea, the judge excused the jury informing them a plea-deal had been struck. The following day, the foreman of the jury called John crying. She was tortured with the thought of Isaac spending years in prison and informed John their verdict was not guilty as to all felony counts and guilty to misdemeanor reckless handling of a firearm and sentenced him to six months in the county jail. The lesson is that you should always trust your jury.
Verdict notwithstanding, taking the plea was Isaac’s decision. He is a bright, yet misguided, young man who was on the wrong path in life. He will have the opportunity to move past his prison sentence and become someone he can be proud of, with lessons of his own to share with others. Who can even imagine what positive impacts he may have on his family, friends, and community that would not have otherwise happened had he been falsely convicted. Here’s to John and Clay who never gave up on him. Congratulations.
Work with Clay Zelbst in Texas this February for TLC’s Opening Statement Regional Seminar at Mo-Ranch. Register your seat here: http://bit.ly/TLCreg2020