Congrats on your win, Bell! Can you tell us a little bit about your client?
My client was accused of inappropriately touching 4 young girls. The first time I met him, he was in jail and hadn’t been able to make bond yet. Once we got him out, we were able to move on to the stage of understanding his story. My client’s history was really important because he was a softball coach for girls the same age as these girls making the accusations. He spent a lot of time with young girls and nothing had happened with any of them. He was not a person that would commit this sort of crime.
How did The Trial Lawyers College help you with preparing the case and in the courtroom?
Getting together with other trial lawyers in a TLC Local Working Group to figure out my voir dire approach changed everything. There were four separate claims by four separate young girls about a touch incident. During the depositions I had the girls each tell us what happened and how it happened and they were telling these huge, exaggerated stories. Things that couldn’t have possibly occurred. I got together with my local working group and we started focusing on that issue of why people tell stories. With their help, I decided that would be the theme that I used – why do children tell stories? We had to figure out a way to get the jurors to talk by connecting with them, getting them to discuss the issues of the case, and help them come together so that they were willing to listen to us and our case.
We also did reenactments of different events which was extremely helpful in my preparation for trial. This was an alibi case, to some degree, as well as an ‘I didn’t do it’. The reenactments became pivotal in helping me develop my case because the prosecutor was using this “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” concept.
There’s a new Federal Rule which allows previous claims to be admitted for propensity. Basically, if you’ve done it before then you must have done it this time too, which is kind of an anomaly when it comes to criminal law. The struggle there was that 20 years ago a person made a report that my client had touched her inappropriately. The police who investigated it back then said it was unfounded – but now it’s coming up 20 years later after the laws have changed. We had a bunch of alibi witnesses that said my client couldn’t possibly have been there at that time, people that were there that know this didn’t happen. Even though we had all that evidence the judge said at the trial that since she said it happened, that was enough for him. So we had to deal with this 20 year old claim that he had done the same thing. Once again the prosecutor’s whole theme was “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
How did an innocent man end up with 4 separate accusations?
It started with this one girl who was just craving attention and telling these stories to her friends at school. Then the best friend of one of the girls said it happened to her; then another girl said, “Oh, it happened to me too”. Then she met with her cousins at the park the same day and tells them about what happened to them and then they all went to their parents and say, “Oh yeah, it happened to all of us too.” They believed it by the time they were testifying, so that was interesting. Fortunately my client works for a trucking company that has records from all the years when this happened. Those records showed that he was working in another state 10 hours away. Another time, it was during the day, or during the time when he was constantly being monitored by work.
Even with an alibi like that, you had to rely on some pretty well-honed skills. Is there one that you felt was most effective?
I use the reenactment skills that I learned at TLC to help my clients prepare for trial. Getting the jury to really “see” into that moment and understand why it was impossible for my client to do what they said he did. With the voir dire, it was about really connecting to the jurors and the issues, to help explain the story. When my client got up to testify, he was well prepared for that testimony. Those are the trial skills that were really relied on: the reenactment, the voir dire, the personal sharing and the scene setting. Those skills were imperative to my ability to win this case. Through role reversals, I have become much better at thinking about what’s important to the witness, or what’s important to the prosecutor, or to the judge, and that has affected my cross exam. With the children in this case, it was really the kid gloves, just making them aware, trying to point out some of the issues that were important in my case and not worry about trying to maybe “villainize” them so much, but show the errors in there.
You graduated from The Trial Lawyers College in the summer of 2013, then you went to a Grad course in 2015 and again last year. Why do you return?
The grad programs create a setting where I can connect with lawyers who deeply commit themselves to their cases and their clients. To be able to connect with people who have the same level of commitment and dedication with me is just amazing. We are able to work on skills that help us to be better people and better lawyers. As we grow as people, that helps us do a better job connecting with our clients, with jurors, with people involved in our cases, and how we view our cases. I need the reconnection that returning to the ranch year after year provides.
About Bell Island:
Bell Island is a graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law and a 2013 Trial Lawyers College graduate. Bell started in the Scottsbluff County Public Defender’s office and opened his own criminal defense practice in 1999 where he continues to represent clients in the areas of Criminal Law, DUI, Divorce and Family law, and Probate matters.