“Why did you do so-and-so?” asked the lawyer.
“Nunya freakin’ business,” replied the witness.
The exchange between the teenage accuser and the defense attorney in a sexual misconduct trial didn’t happen exactly that way, but freely translated, that’s how the girl answered the lawyer’s question.
Wow, just when you think you’ve seen it all in the courtroom, a “wow, I’ve never seen that happen before, what’s the judge gonna do” moment occurs. Ample reminder that a trial, while steeped in the rule of law, the coat-and-tie decorum of the courtroom, the formal pronouncements of the black-robed judge and the U.S. Constitution, can generate unscripted human moments of high drama and raw emotion.
The “nunya” (my translation of the event) exchange happened after the teen accuser had finished testifying for the state. The attorney for the adult male defendant had her on cross-examination, probing for a weakness that might undermine her credibility or “impeach the witness,” as the lawyers say.
He asked her about an event that had occurred, and why had she taken a particular action? I don’t recall her exact response; it wasn’t literally “nunya,” but it was along the lines of “personal reasons” or “that’s personal.”
Uh-oh, rapids ahead, as a witness usually doesn’t get to decide what questions he or she is willing to answer. Judge Frank Griffin - sitting as judge of the 35th District Court in Steve Ellis’ absence - calmly told the girl she had to answer the question.
It’s personal, she reiterated.
Double uh-oh, the rapids are getting really big.
What was Judge Griffin gonna do? Would he become the first judge in Brown County to hold a teenage victim in a sexual misconduct trial in contempt of court and send her to jail until she agrees to answer the question?
I told another defense attorney, who wasn’t involved in the trial, about the incident and asked him if he agreed it was unusual.
“Very unusual,” replied the attorney, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media. Naw, I’m just making that part up; I’ve just always wanted to say that.
It was Fred Franklin, and he authorized himself to speak to the media.
“Have you seen everything in the courtroom?” I asked.
“Oh my gosh, no,” Franklin replied. “After every trial, I learn something.”
I asked him if I had it right in observing that a defense attorney has to walk a narrow line when cross-examining a teenage accuser in a sexual misconduct trial. Beat her up on the stand, and risk alienating the jury, I suggested.
“That’s exactly right … if you go in there and you’re just mean … the jury’s going to turn against you,” Franklin said.
“It’s a case-by-case, kind of a minute-by-minute deal.”
He said he can become angry and passionate during a trial. Lawyers, Franklin said, get caught up not only in the competitive nature of trial but also in their attachment to their clients.
“It really almost becomes personal for them,” Franklin said. “You get involved in it and you want to win. You get personally tied up in the trial. You personally hope for the best for your client.
“We take it personal. It takes a toll on you. It takes a couple of days to get over it, and the state’s the same way. They get attached and they care. It’s interesting work.”
The teenage accuser, still on the witness stand, broke down and said she needed a break. Griffin allowed her to leave the courtroom.
Outside the jury’s presence, Griffin heard arguments from the opposing attorneys as to why the girl should or should not be required to answer the question.
The prosecutor said the defense attorney was attempting to embarrass and intimidate the girl. The defense attorney argued that the question was essential to the defense of his client.
Griffin questioned the defense attorney on what answer he anticipated if the girl answered the question, but was apparently troubled by the attorney’s statements of “my information is …”
Griffin, taking note of the girl’s emotional state, said he wasn’t going to allow the defense attorney to go on a “fishing expedition” that would only serve to traumatize the girl.
Part Deux of the event eventually followed. The defense attorney produced a police report related to the event he had wanted to know about, and the girl answered his question. But that was outside the jury’s presence, and Griffin didn’t allow the jury to hear it.
Like Franklin said, “it’s interesting work.”
Steve Nash writes his column for the Brownwood Bulletin on Thursdays. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.