WINTER: THIS IS THE BIG TIME
By early 2010, Connolly and Bednar have moved up to felonies, meaning that for the first time they’re facing juries in their trials. Making a convincing case to a panel of 12 people with varying perspectives requires a whole new skill set.
“Judges have seen it all,” Connolly says. “You don’t need to explain as much when you’re doing a bench trial as you do with a jury trial.”
In felonies, the assistants no longer have the unpredictability of showing up in court and handling whatever comes up that day. Instead, they’re each assigned to a specific judge. They’re given the judge’s schedule of trials and other matters months in advance, so they have time to prepare. They handle the cases from the arraignment all the way through sentencing, unlike in misdemeanors, where they were trying cases they’d reviewed only minutes earlier.
Though Connolly is relieved that her trials are now cases she has prepared herself, felonies require much more research. Since advancing to the new caseload, Connolly has had to meet with witnesses nearly every day. In the drug- and gun-related cases she’s been assigned, most of her witnesses are police officers. She talks with them about the crime scenes and asks for any photos and notes they took. She strategizes about how many witnesses to call and in what order she should put them on the stand.
Despite weeks of preparation, Connolly is still visibly anxious on the day of trial. It will be only her second time in front of a jury. In the minutes leading up to opening statements, she’s rushing around the courtroom, her shoulder-length blond hair slightly disheveled. She needs to find a working outlet for her laptop. She’s hauling poster-size photos up to the counsel’s table. In between gulps of water, she flips through a thick binder stuffed with documents and introduces herself to the court reporter.
Aside from her cases, something else has been weighing on Connolly. She has realized she doesn’t feel happy, though she’s not quite ready to accept the reason. She didn’t enjoy being in court when she was handling misdemeanors, but she chalked that up to the chaos. Since moving up to felonies, though, she hasn’t felt any better.
She reminds herself that this is the job she’s wanted since law school. She has worked hard to get here, and she’s not willing to give up on it. She’s still new to felonies. There’s a chance things will improve once she’s more settled.
When the jury filters in and Connolly walks into the well of the courtroom to face them, she’s smiling and seemingly calm.
“This case is about a man who was doing his job,” Connolly begins. “That job was to sell cocaine on the streets of DC.”
The defendant is accused of distributing crack cocaine to undercover police officers on five occasions. The jury will have to listen to Connolly describe all five charges, and she can only hope she chose people who will be patient and interested enough to pay attention to the details.
As is typical, Connolly had just a week of training in the felony section after she was promoted from misdemeanors. Then she had to get back into court. Jury selection was a focus of that training week, and she has the mechanics of it down—where to stand during the selection process, how many people you’re allowed to strike, and myriad other details.
The more subjective parts are mastered with time. When she chooses jurors, Connolly pays attention to whether they look her in the eye or stare at the floor, where in the District they live, and what they do for a living. Engineers, she says, have a tendency to overthink a case. More experience will help her further zero in on characteristics to look for—but there’s always a certain amount of luck involved.
This jury appears engaged as Connolly lays out her case. She walks them through the way an undercover “buy” works. One undercover officer buys the drugs, while another officer, acting as “the eyes,” watches the sale unfold.
Connolly is soft-spoken but animated as she describes how each transaction between the defendant and the officer occurred. She knows the case well enough to speak from memory.
The sales happened over several months, which raises a question: Why wasn’t the defendant arrested after the first sale? Connolly explains that the five “buys” were part of a continuous investigation.
The defense presents a different version of events. In his opening, the defense lawyer says that the five alleged drug deals were actually a series of failed “buy-bust operations.” A buy-bust is police lingo for buying drugs from a dealer before arresting him or her. The defense attorney contends that the police failed to complete their buy-busts, which is why the defendant wasn’t arrested until the fifth try. It was only to avoid embarrassment, the lawyer tells the jurors, that the police used the excuse that they were targeting the defendant as part of an ongoing operation to explain why they didn’t immediately arrest him.
While lawyers can try a misdemeanor within an hour or two and get a nearly immediate verdict from the judge, a jury trial such as this one can go on for days. There’s more explanation involved to make sure jurors understand terminology such as “buy-bust,” and there’s a lot more evidence to introduce.
There’s also the fact that almost nothing ever starts on time in Superior Court. Jurors show up 20 minutes late. New evidence may turn up minutes before the start time of a trial, which means the lawyers need extra time to review it.
Closing arguments in the drug case start by 4 pm on the second day of the trial. Just as Connolly begins to speak, a field trip of about two dozen foreign judges who have been observing gets up, loudly shuffles around, and leaves. Connolly is unfazed. She reviews each drug transaction a final time, demonstrating for the jury how she says the defendant retrieved the bags of crack from within his shirtsleeves.
The jurors deliberate until 3:30 the following afternoon. They find the defendant guilty on three of the five counts.