Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Coaching Witnesses.

A recent federal case out of the Fifth Circuit considered how far lawyers can go when coaching their witnesses prior to a trial or deposition. The case Ibarra v. Baker sent a strong reminder that witness preparation has its limits.

In that case, the court upheld sanctions against the attorneys who were defending police officers in a Section 1983 case. The defendants asserted that they had reasonable suspicion for detainment of the plaintiff, while the plaintiff alleged otherwise.

The district court found that the defense lawyers had essentially planted two new terms of art into the case through their preparation of two witnesses. The witnesses began using the terms "retaliation" and "high-crime area" late in the lawsuit and only after preparation by their attorneys.

The late timing of the appearance of these terms, combined with some notes taken by one of the witnesses during the preparation, led the district court to find that the attorney's conduct was sanctionable.

This reminds me of the great book Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver that we had to read in Crim Law I with Professor Schmall. You will recall the great scene in that book where the defense lawyer counsels his client on the different mental states required to charge different levels of murder. After hearing his lawyer's explanation, the client in that book "remembers" exactly what happened the night the man who raped his wife got murdered. Great book.

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