Nelson singing & teaching to the TLC 2012 September Class 

Nelson Tyrone, TLC ’00 Grad & TLC Faculty. 9/26/2012 

On September 14th , TLC Alum Richard Jones (‘03) and I obtained a substantial verdict on behalf of our client, Nathaniel Polite who had been shot in the back running away from attackers at his apartment complex. He suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury and consequent loss of feeling and spasticity in his legs. Nathan’s family came to me for help, and I brought Richard in as co-counsel. We filed a case against his apartment complex and the management company for inadequate security. Most lawyers I talked with urged me to reject the case but by relying on the TLC methods and the TLC family, we were able to obtain a verdict for Nathan that will help take care of him for the rest of his life.

Preparing for Trial:

Don Clarkson: Don flew to Atlanta to work with Nathan for a day early in the case. Don took him through re-enactments of scenes of vulnerability in his life. This was the starting point for us in understanding Nathan’s disability.

Alumni Tom Metier (’94), Maren Chaloupka (’99), Mel Orchard (’08) and Marj Russell (’94) spent a day during Staff Training in May 2012 to work with me on discovering the story in Nathan’s case and working on a values-based voir dire. Later this summer, Marj flew to Atlanta and spent a day with us working further on discovering the story of our client and of this case. We also relied on several other folks from the Atlanta TLC Local Working Group who spent a day serving as a focus group as we worked on the social atom and more discovering the story. 

During Trial:

Marj Russell again flew to Atlanta and sat with us at counsel table to help us select a jury. With no objection from Defense counsel, I spent the first 2 hours of Voir Dire discussing the danger points in our case and forming our group. Two hours in, the judge called me to the bench and told me “if I kept up with the touchy-feely stuff” he was going to make me sit down. I was forced to finish with a more “traditional” approach, but our group was already formed.

One of our danger points was why Nathan had refused to talk to the police who investigated his shooting. During our trial prep we had re-enacted the scene at Nathan’s hospital bed where the lead detective had accused Nathan of knowing his attackers. Nathan had tried to convince the detective that he didn’t know his attackers, but had ultimately given up when the detective wouldn’t hear him. The Defense’s story at trial was that the attack was targeted. Nathan’s refusal to cooperate with the police was an important chapter in that story. So we needed a way for the jury to see and understand why Nathan had stopped talking to the police. During my direct exam of Nathan, I did something that Gerry Spence had demonstrated in some large groups in the Big Barn on the Thunderhead Ranch. I literally reversed roles with the redneck Detective and cross-examined Nathan in the role-reversal. We had called the detective on direct exam right before Nathan testified. The jury had seen his cowboy boots and his swagger. When Nathan fed me the words the detective had used “C’mon, you know who did this”. “You expect me to believe that?” “What are you hiding?” I fed the words back to Nathan in the role reversal and cut off every attempt he made to explain. And I did this with a volume and tone of voice that demonstrated to the jury that a white cop in Atlanta, Georgia interrogating a young black man who had just been shot, was never really going to listen.

During Nathan’s direct examination we showed a “Day in the Life” video. Nathan’s doctors testified that Nathan faced the possibility of being confined to a wheelchair 20 years post-injury. In order to re-enact this, Nathan came down from the witness stand and sat in a chair next to the jury. And as we talked about what his life would be like in a wheelchair, I stood behind Nathan with my hands on his shoulders just as a caregiver would. I stayed with Nathan like this for thirty minutes and asked him questions as he narrated the video. At one point he remarked that he had “never seen how he walked”. When he said this, a member of the jury responded out loud “you walk just fine.” That was when I felt the jury would take care of Nathan.

In our Closing Argument, I painted a picture of two potential futures – one where the defense’s character assassination of Nathan and their attempt to make the jury see him as “different” and “unworthy” would win the day; and another future where we were all judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin.

After nearly 6 hours of deliberations, the jury returned with a verdict of $5.25 million for Nathan. After speaking with some jurors we learned that eleven jurors had voted for a verdict in excess of $8 million and one juror had threatened to deadlock unless they reduced the verdict. When I dropped Nathan at home later that night his mother asked him whether he had won. Nathan wrapped his arms around her and said “Mom, I’m going to be able to buy you a little house so you’ll never be evicted again”.

In the face of a defense built on fear, our jurors responded with love. They became a family – a tribe of heroes . As I sit here writing this story in the Lodge at the Thunderhead Ranch during the final week of the September College, I can still see the members of the jury lifting Nathan on their shoulders and carrying him out of the courtroom.