Sunday, July 3, 2011

Closing Arguments in Criminal Cases: How Long or How Short Should They Be?

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As you may know, as a former state and federal prosecutor, and currently, as a criminal defense lawyer, I have prosecuted, (and now defended), literally hundreds of jury trials over the years.  Today, I want to talk a little bit about the length of closing arguments.  In other words, how long or how short should they be?  Put another way, do you believe that juries of today have the same attention span as juries of one hundred years ago?

As I am writing this post, I am listening to the closing arguments in the Casey Anthony murder trial.  It is expected that the closing arguments in this high profile trial will last only a couple of hours each.

But did you know that, years ago, closing arguments often lasted for many hours, or even for days?  For example, in 1913, during the infamous Georgia trial of Leo M. Frank for murdering Mary Phagan, the closing argument of Solicitor General Hugh Dorsey lasted a whopping nine hours!  This was not unusual!

Today, on the other hand, closing arguments seldom last longer than in the Casey Anthony murder case.  Why?  How are jurors different today?  Here are my guesses.  One reason, in my opinion, is that the psyche, or expectation, of today's juror is much different than the juror of one hundred years ago.  The pace of life was also slower then.  Also, back then, jurors were conditioned or accustomed to long sermons from long-winded politicians and preachers.  Maybe they just expected the same down at the courthouse.  

But in our fast-paced, instant messaging society of today, jurors simply expect to receive more information much more quickly.  Arguably, our attention spans are shorter today, too.  For instance, jurors today expect every t.v. drama to be solved within the hour and before the last commercial!

Regardless of the reasons, closing arguments in today's criminal cases will never be as long as in cases tried one hundred years ago.  But perhaps we are all better off!  Can you imagine having to sit still and listen to any lawyer for nine hours today!?  What do you think?

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