What movies teach us about trial strategy, part 2

The Deep Blue Sea is a fascinating movie that you may have to search out to find on a big screen near you right now. If you watch it for its style you'll learn a lesson or two (maybe more) about trial tactics. Style? Trial tactics from movie style? Here's part two about what we mean.

There's lots to talk about, but let's take a look at the second of three trial tactic lessons from this film that you can think about adapting to your next trial's Opening Statement for example.

Our second tip? Plant a not-too-obvious Easter Egg and let the jury find it on their own.

One of the unique aspects of movies is that very often there are seemingly pointless scenes in a movie that are never fully explained by the end of the film. These scenes, however, serve a purpose. Every movie has an obvious plot and then there are the not-so-obvious scenes that actually contribute to the plot but not in an apparent way. You have to think about them. These are the Easter Eggs.

In computer parlance, the techies who wrote computer code (and which became the computer games of our youth) often would plant code inside the game as a surprise for the game players - sort of an inside joke for those who knew it was there. Well, we're talking about taking the same approach with your next jury, but in a much more serious way.

The idea is to give them something that is not terribly obvious but which some of the jurors will begin to think about and work into the unfolding case facts during the trial. In other words, let the jury find greater meaning in your case by discovering it on their own. But to encourage that discovery process, you often will need to plant an Easter Egg - a simple fact or statement or bit of evidence that may lead one or more of the jurors to begin to think on their own. The risk, of course, is that they may not go the direction you want them to. And that is why you need to be careful that your Easter Egg directs the jury to where you want them to go.

Back to the move, as an example.

There's a scene, also relatively early in the move, where the heroine (if that is what she is) is looking at her boyfriend and the camera focus on him as he says that what he told her was not a line and that he really meant it. Then, just as abruptly as it went into the scene, the film cuts away to another scene. There is no explanation for what the scene has to do with the plot at all. It is only later, with a lot of thought, that the view realizes that the scene is the moment in the lives of these two people that they first fell in love with each other. You don't get that from the movie scene itself, though. Only when you look back on it, through the understanding of the rest of the plot, can you realize what that scene meant to the storyline of the movie.

Now, here's an example of an Easter Egg in a prior auto sales fraud trial. Among the documents in evidence was the sales contract and the dealer's finance contract. No one paid much attention to the itemization of the charges on them which was placed there by the car dealer who had ripped off the consumer. But in the consumer's Opening Statement, the remark was made that the car dealer had gouged the consumer with bogus charges and fees, although the focus of the case was the fact that it was an undisclosed wrecked car that had not been repaired right. The focus of the case, according to the attorneys of both sides, was the damage that had been badly repaired on the car. But the Easter Egg was not that.

The sales contract included the state sales tax and when the total was written into the finance contract, the dealer added the state sales tax back on it again. In the Jury Room, one of the jurors pointed it out and that single, small fact fueled the easier-to-find fraud that permeated the case and also fueled the degree of punitive damages they jury felt was needed to curb this car dealer and warn others. It was not the focus of the case for the attorneys, but it was the obvious example of the fraud to the jury because it was black and white and indisputable. It was an Easter Egg waiting to be discovered.

Even if it isn't Easter-time, the result could be a Christmas present for your client. Next week, the final instalment of what movies can teach us about trial strategy - and another trial practice tip you can use.

Ron Burdge
Helping lawyers helping clients