The Art of An Opening Statement
How do you introduce your case? Conventional wisdom suggests only one or two themes, or threads, to weave a consistent picture for the jurors. Let's take, for example, our two fictional cases, one criminal and one civil.
In State v. Jackson, the defendant was charged with arson for conspiracy to burn down his business for the insurance money. In Dixon v. Providential Life, the widow Dixon seeks payment of $500,000 in life insurance benefits from her deceased husband's life insurance company, which denied coverage based on its conclusion that Judge Dixon committed suicide. See tomorrow's post for a fuller explanation of the facts.
Here are four sample opening sentences. You'll immediately be able to figure out who's making the statement (the prosecutor/plaintiff and defense), and in which case.
"Members of the jury, this case involves arson, fueled by greed and deception to obtain insurance money desperately needed to keep a business afloat."
"Members of the jury, we have a case of disconnected facts and innuendo that cannot be strung together to prove arson or any other crime."
"Members of the jury, this case involves a contractual agreement to pay life insurance benefits that was broken at the worst possible time."
"Members of the jury, this case involves a man whose world was crashing in around him, who lied on his application and committed suicide."
Just like the opening sentence of a good legal brief , letter or just about any other communication, the first thing said answers as many of the "newspaper questions" as possible. You know - the "lead" of a journalistic article. It typically starts out with who, what, when, where, why and how.
With those facts, the speaker has immediately provided context to the listener - a framework the listener will use to categorize and file the information that will follow. Here, we've got week-long trials in each case, with two separate juries who've never heard about these cases before.
The statements take advantage of the concept of primacy, which generally dictates that you are more receptive to the first things you see and hear, as long as it makes logical sense and has a coherent framework that provides a consistent explanation for a series of what would perhaps appear to be disconnected facts. How's that for a complicated definition?
In an opening statement to a jury, you not only introduce your theme, you introduce yourself, the parties, the facts, the legal construct of the case and ask for the remedy you want. It's that simple, and perhaps sets up the trial in the same way as a minister, priest, rabbi or imam's sermon.
You know, the old "(1) tell them what you're going to tell them; (2) tell them; and, (3) tell them what you've told them." At least that's the structure my Dad used in his sermons.
When you stand up in front of a jury, you're there to persuade them to decide in your favor. In an opening statement, you must do so without argument. But carefully chosen theme words and factual storytelling frequently make up for the lack of adjectives and adverbs you will use in your closing argument. For now, you're laying the groundwork for what's to come.