Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Mock Trial - Dixon v. Providential Life Insurance

So, yesterday I used one of my company-sponsored volunteer days to spend the day at William Mitchell College as a juror for law student mock trials. I've never been in a mock trial or even a real trial as a juror (or in any other capacity), so it was an enjoyable experience.

I was a juror on Dixon v. Providential Life Insurance, a case involving a woman whose husband, a local judge, was found dead in her home only nine (9) days after starting a new $250,000 ($500,000 accidental) life insurance policy. Highlights included blood spatters that seemed too low, misappropriated judicial funds, sudden withdrawals of money, strange and speculative investments, a gun with a history of misfiring, and other nefarious dealings. In the end, our jury was three for awarding the widow $1219 (paid in so far), three for $250,000 (face value of the policy, no accidental death) and one for $500,000, an accidential death.

I was the one in that equation, although I could have been brought around to the $250,000 view of things. I just didn't see, based on what they'd told me, that there was any sort of proof, other than the most specious circumstantial evidence, that he'd committed suicide and negated the policy. I believed it was possible, I just didn't see the evidence. I was more likely to believe his wife had offed him, or that there'd been some sort of mishap involving the sister-in-law he'd asked to move in (the judge later said that was a possibility based on the original case) - but that still wouldn't be suicide.

The old guy in our group was personally disgusted with me because I was willing to believe that someone described as an expert hunter would poke at a loaded weapon in his house with a screwdriver. I didn't mention any famous people who'd accidentially been shot and shot others after being described as expert hunters - didn't think that would be appropriate. But I was concerned that we saw all this evidence and no remarks by Dixon's attorneys about whether there were scratch marks on the trigger as the defense was alleging death by shotgun using screwdriver as an arm extender. Of course, they sort of muddled the fact that there were $90,000 additional monies missing and that his financial situation was far worse that it looked just with a few simple numbers, so they had other fish to fry.

Then after it was all over, we found out that the defense (the insurance company) hadn't even informed us the study door had been locked. Doh. That might have actually had an impact on me. I'm more likely to believe suicide if he's locking his door to clean his gun, especially with no kids in the house.

All in all, fascinating. The two law students on prosecution were top notch and did a slick presentation. They worked well together - great opening and closing statements - eloquent, almost no note checking, and some nifty graphics showing shot angles and where the blood was. Very convincing. The widow's side seemed more nervous and not as together, but did much better after lunch and had a great closing speech as well, though more note-driven. I did feel bad for them when they tried to do a few Matlock-style moves: campy story about cleaning a carpet in the opening statement, designed to get on our good side, and trying to demonstrate how hard it is to pull a 7# trigger by introducing a bag of sugar as evidence, a move that was actually dismissed by the judge. They were told to lay foundation, or that lacks foundation, enough times to know what they need to work on for real life.

The prosecution did have a bit of work cut out for them working in the confines of the case as one of the witnesses was an expert witness, a doctor/therapist, whose resume included articles about "contagious rudeness", "whining and its therapeutic role", the "role of junk food in therapy" and "psychotherapy by email" (as well as an article about grief for an abused spouse after the death of the abuser). He was so much like the "expert witness" in Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (or maybe it was the sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations -we watched them very close together), that it was laughable. I suggest both of those movies, by the way, excellent. Dixon's side leapt all over the witness, both in cross examination and in closing arguments, which seemed like overkill on what was obviously low-hanging fruit when you got down to it, as the expert witness was so clearly non-expert.

I was a little disappointed that after the judge interviewed us in the beginning (to simulate how to interview potential jurors), he wouldn't tell us what two people each side had picked as who to exclude in a real trial. I figured I must be someone's target as I most closely matched the victim profile, but no way of knowing. I did learn that if you can identify the lead juror just by looking at the group, that's the person to exclude. I trust She Says will recommend the best book on voir dire to me so I know what they were thinking when I answered my questions.


Pete Ryan said...

Hey! If you ever do one of those again, I would like to go. I could use some of this work sponsored time off. :)

Anonymous said...

"In the end, our jury was three for awarding the widow $1219 (paid in so far), three for $250,000 (face value of the policy, no accidental death) and one for $500,000, an accidential death.

I was the one in that equation, although I could have been brought around to the $250,000 view of things. I just didn't see, based on what they'd told me, that there was any sort of proof, other than the most specious circumstantial evidence, that he'd committed suicide and negated the policy."

It sounds like you didn't understand the burdens of proof in this case. In order to get $500,000 under the policy, the wife had the burden of proof of establishing that Dixon's death was an accident.

Scooter said...

Ah...well now anon, that would have been different. I remember, specifically, the judge telling us that the insurance company had the burden of proof to show that it was a suicide for purposes of the $1219, but the widow's burden of proof wasn't clear. I know it wasn't just me, because the first discussion at the jury table was why $1219, $500,000 AND $250,000? No one quite understood why there was a no-accident as it seemed it either was an accident or suicide, and that it was death w/o accident because she couldn't prove it was, was an option - the jurors who felt $250,000 was the answer voiced their opinion that it was the "not one way or the other" and it wasn't based on burden of proof (directly - indirectly, I guess it was). Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I just tried this case in my Trial Advocacy class for the insurance company side (defendant). The facts are very pro-defendant if presented right. Seeing why you went the other way gave me some clues for what to emphasize in the trial. I made a big deal out of the embezzlement investigation and the impact beyond the missing 90k (including disbarrment and the questions about financial problems that would come up in the criminal investigation). Also, I emphasized the secrecy of the financial dealings and that the death scene investigators were close friends dealing with a personal tragedy.
The result: an immediate unanimous verdict of suicide.

Anonymous said...

The burden is on the Insurance company but that just means if neither side does anything the plaintiff wins. Once both sides have argued, presented evidence, questioned witnesses etc. the burden is only preponderance of the evidence so what "more likely than not" happened. If you believe one side over the other at all you find for that side.

Anonymous said...

Last Anon - incorrect. It is not all or nothing. You are correct that defendant has the burden of proving suicide such that if no one does anything, plaintiff wins. But, in that case, plaintiff only wins $250k. The plaintiff has the burden of proving accident. Only if plaintiff meets the burden, does he get $500k. If he does not, and defendant also does not carry his own burden, plaintiff only gets $250k. It is certainly possible for the jury to find that the defendant has not proved suicide and that plaintiff has not proved accident, e.g., it was homicide or simply that there is not enough proof that it was accident.

Anjuli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jurror#1 said...

HI, I was the lead juror on this case and personally, I do not see how you could come to ANY conclusion aside from suicide.

It all lies in the physical evidence.
In our version, according to the figure of the gun, the barrel was 28in. Dixon was clearly using the screwdriver when he was shot. If you are using a screwdriver on a gun, why would the barrel be pointing towards your face?
Firstly, there is nothing on the barrel to modify with a screwdriver; you would adjust something around the trigger/breach.
That being said, unless he held the gun towards him with 1 hand, and an out-stretched arm with the other trying to adjust the breach/trigger of the gun, there is no possible way for him to shoot himself.
Further, he would have been sitting at his desk, under the lamp (The only light that was turned on)instead of standing in the middle of the room with his back to the only light.

In our trial, neither side drew attention to the details of the gun and how it would be VERY unlikely that one would adjust a gun in that manner. However, after hearing he was wearing his boots, the coroner reported that the gun fired at a 45degree upward trajectory, he was 6'2, and that the blood splatter was approx centered at 6 feet, he must have been sitting down when he shot himself. Further, I would even argue that he put the screwdriver in the trigger, and pushed it with his feet while holding the barrel (but this part is fairly moot).

Lastly, he was an expert hunter, but of course there can be accidents.
That being said, he was known to even hunt with his safety still engaged between shots (he always said "you can never be too careful"). Someone who is that careful would not store, transport, and especially not clean a loaded gun (with the safety off). Further, the breach could be disconnected/cocked-open which is how you would clean the gun (at which point you would also see the shells in the chamber).

We were told of our 3 options: (and remember, it is a civil case and you weigh the probability>50%, and it is not "beyond a shadow of a doubt")

1) The insurance company had burden of proof that he more likely than not (>50%) committed suicide; if so, pay $1219 (the premiums that he had paid into the insurance policy).

2) The widow had burden of proof that it was more likely than not (>50%)an accident; if so, pay $500,000 (250,000+accidental death)

3) neither side met their burden of proof and the normal amount of the policy would be paid, $250,000

Larry Rubinow said...

Juror#1: "personally, I do not see how you could come to ANY conclusion aside from suicide."

A well-thought-out mock trial case won't have a clear-cut resolution. The whole point is that both sides of the case have a valid argument to make. It's not a test to see whether the jury gets it right; it's a challenge for the 'lawyers' to find the strengths and weaknesses in their own cases, and to demonstrate what they've learned about litigation.

It may well be that the insurance company's representatives were so much stronger in your trial that no conclusion other than suicide was possible for your jury -- but that says nothing about the validity of contrary findings in other trials of the same case.

Scooter said...

Absolutely, Mean Mr. Mustard. In the last case I sat in on, if you reviewed the facts, it was possible that both sides were wrong - or right. You could step into an intersection on a green light, and still be legally hit by a car that entered on a yellow. They set it up that way on purpose. And sitting in the same case twice really pointed out that what gets presented makes a huge difference. The facts presented each time are not the same - the lawyers are expected to take notes, highlight what they feel is important, and rely on memory and differences in mock witnesses and jurors. Definitely no foregone conclusions.

Anonymous said...

What did the attorneys argue in favor of the widow?