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Monday, June 7, 2010

Today's trial as a learning and teaching tool -Blagojevich Trial 2010

Opening statements in the Rod Blagojevich corruption trial take place tomorrow. Blagovejich is the flamboyant former governor of Illinois, accused of trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. For the uninitiated, the trial will provide a fascinating look at the seedy underbelly of Illinois government, where politics is a blood sport and influence peddling has been elevated to art form.

Beyond that, the trial should be a useful vehicle for teaching trial advocacy. Because of the high-profile nature of the case, it is likely to receive heavy press coverage, including learned commentary from the punditocracy about the advocacy choices of the attorneys for both sides.

Check out this article from the Chicago breaking news service for a preview of the different styles likely to be on display during opening statements tomorrow.

A quote that stood out to me in the article was from Blagojevich's attorney, Sam Adam, Jr.: "The more you try to say things the way you think people want to hear them, the more you get away from what got you there in the first place." One of the hardest things to teach budding young attorneys is to rely on their own voices, and I don't think I've ever seen the point better phrased by anyone else.

I am convinced that integrating discussion about current cases can be a valuable part of teaching either a trial advocacy or an evidence course. Students thrive on making connections between what they are seeing in the courtroom (or reading about, or watching on television), and what is being taught in the classroom. Personal experience as a student, then a teacher, has taught me how important this connection can be.

I took a criminal trial practice class my third year of law school during the O.J. Simpson trial. Our class was taught by two seasoned criminal defense attorneys, who took full advantage of the teaching opportunity posed by the trial. We spent the first ten or fifteen minutes of each class discussing the case. The insights they provided about strategy, tactics, and decisions of counsel were invaluable, and helped me catch a glimpse of just how complex and difficult trial work can be. Until I took that class, I thought the world of appellate cases and advocacy represented the pinnacle of the lawyer's art; after the class was over, I felt differently, and I made my career choices accordingly.

So-I'll be paying close attention to the Blagojevich case. As an Illinois resident, I'm interested to know whether Blagojevich will join George Ryan in the Illinnois Governors' Wing of the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institute. As a student of the human condition, I'm looking forward to witnessing a drama of potentially Shakespearean dimensions (after all, we have on trial a man with few inhibitions, who has promised to testify in his own defense, and who would not hesitate to drag the President of the United States down with him). And as a teacher of trial advocacy, I plan to be alert to opportunities to enhance my classroom instruction with a dose of real life.

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