You won! Congratulations! Would you mind giving me some background on the case?
Sure. There are a few players in this case. There is the grandmother who is the legal guardian of her 11 year old granddaughter and the granddaughter has a friend who’s the same age. The two 11 year old girls go with the grandma over to grandma’s friend’s house. Grandma’s friend lived with this man, Michael, who is the defendant in the case. Michael owned the house and had a swimming pool in the backyard, so the girls were excited about going swimming that day. It’s a hot June day back in 2011. They were swimming, having a good time, and at some point all the women went inside to watch a video of someone’s ultrasound. Michael changed into his swimsuit and got into the pool with the girls. They were rough housing and playing but then he grabbed one of the girl’s breasts. She screamed so the other girl jumped off the side of the pool and kicked him in the back. He took her by the hair and started dunking her repeatedly and slamming her head up against the side of the pool. In that time, he also grabbed her breast area. The other little girl who was rescued by this girl that is now getting her head slammed against the side of the pool, jumped on his back and bit his ear. He turned his attention back to her, he stuck his hand in her bathing suit bottoms and swiped his finger across her private parts. At that point, he dunked her underwater and she kicked him in his testicles and took off out of the pool. They went running and the grandma sees that they are both hysterical.
Grandma had both of them under her arm and she asked them what happened. Michael says “Don’t listen to them, they are going lie anyway, all they are going to do is lie.” Then he pointed at the little girl who he had dunked repeatedly and said “That little b** needs her ass busted”. The girls were just begging to leave. They got in the car and left and grandma is trying to figure out what in the world happened. The kids are just hysterical, sobbing and inconsolable. Once they got home they were able to talk about what happened and the police were called immediately. The police then sent the little girl to have a full SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) exam done which is a very, very, very invasive procedure. The nurse found abrasions on her vagina. The whole exam took almost two hours. The little girl also gave a statement at that time to the nurse and told her what happened which was written down in the medical record. They ended up arresting Michael on two counts of sexual assault on a child. We finally got to trial after he died in 2015. We had to put his estate in as the defendant. We went to trial, we got a jury, nine men, three women and we put on our case. The jury deliberated for four hours and gave these girls a verdict of $425,000.
Was there a point in the case when you really felt a turning point?
These cases are tough with the “he said, she said”. The defendant was a prominent figure in a community where everybody knows everybody. Nobody on the jury said that they knew him, but the defense kept talking up how he was never convicted in a criminal court and he was a city council member. That was making me nervous until the girls testified. I mean they were perfect on the stand. When you put your client on the stand, it can go how you anticipated or it can go better, or it can go much worse. I’ve seen all three. We did a lot of preparation with them, especially due to the sensitivity of the case, and I was very grateful that they were able to get up there and courageously testify the way that they did. At that point, if we didn’t win this I would’ve been shocked.
What was the part of the case that scared you the most?
A lot of my clients use laughter or joking as defense mechanisms because they don’t want to feel the pain. I ask them a question where I might be expecting their response to show pain, but they instead respond with laughter — that sort of thing. It had been five years since this happened, the girls were now 16 and 17 years old, and I was scared that they might fight their true feelings about this incident by being flippant or defensive and the jury wouldn’t get to see how it had affected them. The opposite was true. I mean, they were just so genuine. Everyone who was in the courtroom could see that this still affects them on a profound level. In fact, we rested our side early. We were going to call the other girl’s mom to come and testify too but we said no, we are ending right there.
How were you able to work with teenage girls in preparing them to testify?
One of my colleagues, and a student at the upcoming TLC July Class of ’17 is a guy named Clay Zelbst and he had been working this case for two years. I came on it a few months ago to help him try it. When I first met with them we had a really good rapport right off the bat. I understood him, and his clients, and the case. They understood me, what I was doing, and where I was going. They understood that they needed to take it seriously. I didn’t want to go too deep with them because of some painful stuff, but we were able to use techniques I learned at TLC to help recreate the story of that day and to recreate the scenes so Clay and I could really see what happened, given it happened 5 years ago. Neither one of the girls had seen the swimming pool since that day. They knew that I was going to show them a picture of it during their testimony and I didn’t want them to look at it until then. When I showed them the picture for the first time during their direct examination, each of their reactions was just incredible. Immediate tears and fears. Every juror saw that on their faces. I didn’t have to say anything. It was so obvious, at that point, that what happened in that pool was awful for them both and they were not even close to being over it. I knew that if they could feel their true feelings in the courtroom that are associated with what happened to them, their testimony would be compelling. I knew after a lot of prep work, that whatever they said to the jury, it would be truthful and genuine and that was the connection I learned at TLC and wanted them to have with their jurors.
How do you ask for the $425,000 from the jury?
That was difficult because I usually start with the actual damages and use them as a good base line and then ask for multiples of that for non-economic damages. But in this case, we had zero economic damages. Clay Zelbst did the first closing, I did the final closing. He explained how we calculated the numbers that we asked for, which was a penny for every second since this happened to them, then just take 1/10 of that which is $1.5 million. When I did the final closing, I explained to the jury that these are the numbers that we think make sense, but told them it is really up to them. I told them, “You may think more, you may think less, but it is 100% up to you all based on what you think will counter all the negativity that Michael caused these girls.” We gave them our number and our rubric and we were happy with it. And we were happy with the number they eventually returned.
About Joe Jones:
Joe Jones, a native of Houston, Texas, manages the Houston office of Sloan, Hatcher, Perry, Runge, Robertson & Smith. Prior to graduating from law school and eventually attending TLC in 2016, Joe contracted with the United States Marine Corps to serve as a Judge Advocate. He graduated from the USMC Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in August 2010. After passing the Texas Bar Exam in 2011, Joe started his active duty tour. Over the next four years, Joe had the honor of serving in various roles within the military legal community. However, he practiced criminal defense for most of his tour. As a defense attorney, “Captain Jones” represented over sixty Marines and Sailors facing criminal prosecution and/or involuntary administrative separation processing. He represented clients facing a myriad of criminal charges to include sexual assault, sexual harassment, murder, larceny, battery, hazing, drug charges, and various other crimes. When he is not working, Joe enjoys spending time with his wife, Chrysa, and their two children, Ellie and Everett. He relaxes and recharges by watching Texas A&M University and Houston sports teams, hunting, and playing guitar.