Students in Criminal Practice Clinic Turn “Slam-Dunk Case” Into Split Verdict
Third-year students Mary Weber and Adam Woods, through UNH Law’s Criminal Practice Clinic, brought a complicated and at times “bizarre” felony-level case from trial through sentencing this past semester.
“These two just couldn’t have done a better job for this particular client,” said Professor Chuck Temple, the clinic’s director. “Mary and Adam tried this case like seasoned trial attorneys from beginning to end and were a complete pleasure to work with
The client was a woman who had been found by the police wrestling with another woman on the side of the road. When the police approached, the client took pills out of her pockets and threw them on the ground. They were later determined to be narcotic prescription drugs. Both women were arrested and brought to the police station.
There, the client was brought to an interview room and taken out of handcuffs. She told the police three different and conflicting stories about the pills, including one in which she and the other woman were going to sell them. The client had given the police a false name, but when she was read her Miranda rights and signed the form, she signed her real name. Shortly after, the police gave a form to her labeled “Non-Custodial Statement Form” and asked her to write a statement, which she did, using the false name. After this, the officers, who hadn’t realized the woman had signed her real name at one point, left her alone in the room while they tried to ascertain her identity.
The client got up and, with no one to stop her, walked out of the police station. She was found 45 minutes later at the gas station next door. She was charged with seven felonies: three possessions with intent to sell narcotic drugs, three possessions of narcotic drugs, and felony-level escape.
The defense, by Weber and Woods, was challenged from the start.
“It was a difficult case to try because we knew she was going to be found guilty of possession,” Temple said, adding that the woman at one point had also confessed to intending to sell the drugs. To add to the difficulty, he said, the team was trying a case against a prosecutor with 27 years of experience.
The defense’s tactic: “How bizarre, none of this makes any sense, from the wrestling match to leaving the client unsupervised at the police station,” Temple said. “The theme throughout was how this didn’t make sense, including the client’s stories about selling drugs. You can’t convict someone just on a confession, and here we had three, none of which were corroborated.”
Weber, who was participating in the Advanced Criminal Practice Clinic, did the opening argument and cross-examined the lead police detective.
“My goal with this opening argument was to develop our theme by giving a preview of the trial that highlighted the shortcomings of the state’s case,” she said. “We had some unique facts to work with that allowed me tell an interesting story and engage the jury. I was nervous, but when it came down to it I just trusted in the fact that I was polished and prepared. Once I started talking, everything fell into place and the day-long trial went by in an instant.”
Woods, a student in the first-level Criminal Practice Clinic, cross-examined the other arresting officer and the criminalist at the state laboratory who examined the drugs.
“This was a great opportunity in many ways,” he said. “Not only did I get in-court experience in front of a jury, but I also learned how to take what a witness says on direct examination and adjust my cross on the fly. I think I'll always remember frantically re-writing my cross with Chuck over lunch.”
Temple, who presented the closing argument in the three-day trial, focused again on how bizarre the story was.
“We said the client didn’t escape – she was found 200 feet from the front door of the police station,” he said. “ And ‘noncustodial’ (referring to the form she was given) means you’re not in custody. We also found out she hadn’t gone through any of the booking procedures. How can you escape if you haven’t been properly arrested?”
After deliberating, the jury found the woman guilty of three counts of drug possession and of felony-level escape, but she was found not guilty of possession with intent to sell.
“Mary and Adam did fantastic work in the case,” Temple said. “To get not-guilty verdicts on the drug sales when your client has the drugs on her, throws them in front of the police officer, and then admits the intent to sell – I don’t think it could have gone better at the trial.”
The team stayed with the client through her sentencing in December, Temple said. While she did receive a prison sentence, she was immediately made eligible for parole.
Temple also praised Weber and Woods for making the effort to build “a great rapport with the client,” he said, adding, “That’s not an always an easy thing to do.”