Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Goolsby "War Story" About Tolerating Stress And An Intolerable Judge

"The not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity." (Erich Fromm)

No doubt, all trial lawyers have war stories to tell about how, at some point in their careers, a fire-breathing judge has given them fits during a trial. Fortunately, for me, most of the Georgia judges I have appeared before have been polite and professional.  However, I will never forget one exception -- a cantankerous old judge who appeared to hate all prosecutors and all police officers, along with any lawyer who appeared in court against one of his favorite attorneys!  Here is my "war story" from my prosecution days about dealing with this judge and about what I learned from a stressful courtroom experience.

This experience occurred early in my career, when I was a young assistant district attorney.  I was trying my second rape case. Even on a good day, I still got the nervous "heebie-jeebies" whenever I appeared in court. The defendant in this case was represented by an experienced trial attorney who was one of the judge's best friends and "favorite son" in that community.  At least, it seemed that way to me!  Sometimes, when you are in such a courtroom, it seems like you can almost smell the "home cooking." In short, you feel like the visiting team and the home-town referee is favoring the home town team.  And I could tell that day that I wasn't invited to this special, "lovey-dovey" feast between the judge and his fair-haired son!

After jury selection, we routinely called our witnesses up front to be sworn in and "sequestered" in the witness room, in accordance with the rule of sequestration.  I informed the judge that I had routinely put our G.B.I. laboratory witness "on call."  In other words, I had decided to allow my expert witness to continue to work at the lab until just before I needed him to testify. After all, the lab wasn't too far down the street.  

I had no idea that this routine decision would set off the judge's fuse against me!  Here is what happened!

Just before I was supposed to make my opening statement to the jury, the judge called me and the defense lawyer up to the bench.  Then, without any warning or justification, the judge became as red as a ripe beet. While shaking his extended finger at my face, he shouted at me, "If your expert witness walks into my courtroom, in violation of the rule of sequestration, I am gonna lock you up!"  Then, he tersely added, "Now, make your opening statement!"

I did as I was told. I made my opening statement! Fortunately, because I was so focused on the important  task at hand, I managed not to become too rattled by the judge's threat. I stayed focused and won my case! 

But you can bet your bottom dollar that I kept nervously looking over my shoulder throughout that trial and made sure that my lab witness didn't waltze into the courtroom!

I also learned some valuable lessons from this dreadful experience. For instance, I learned that being a trial lawyer involves learning how to deal with stress and how to tolerate insecurity. With a tough old judge breathing down my neck, there was no way I was ever going to relax, or feel secure. But the key is that I persevered and managed to handle the stress.  In other words, I learned that, as a trial lawyer, you may not feel warm and fuzzy in the courtroom, particularly when a judge is spittin' fire at you, but you can still learn to deal with the insecurity, and tolerate it, in order to win your case!

I might not have enjoyed the home cooking, or the stressful experience, but victory makes a sweet dessert!


  1. Hi Richard, just stopping by to say how interesting your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris

    1. Thank you for the visit! I also hope everyone will check out your fine, blog!