Jay Milano Attorney and Counselor at Law

Category Archives: Lawyering

And the Beast Spit Him Out

 — And the Beast Spit Him Out*

“I have committed a terrible crime.

I have paid a terrible price.”

John Snider, 71 years old, made that statement.

He stood, wearing an orange jumpsuit, before Judge Dick Ambrose. He hunched over a podium and leaned on his cane. He had been led out, in shackles, from the invisible door that hides in all Cuyahoga County Courtrooms.  It is part of a wood paneled wall that separates the absurdity of the courtroom from the insanity of jail. Pass through and you enter the belly of the beast- nothing but cinderblock and stainless steel and unbreakable glass doors. A black shirted deputy sheriff stood behind him. He was close enough to reach out, if need be. It was more likely John Snider would fall than run. He stood ready to be sentenced, for the third time.

John Snider pled guilty to distributing child pornography. Making money by assaulting children is unspeakable. Even trading the pictures with others is reprehensible. But John Snider did none of that. John Snider had never acted out in any way.

He looked at pictures on his computer. He got them from a sharing program, like LimeWire used to be. The sharing program allows others to look at your files. John Snider did not know he was sharing. In fact, no one but the police ever looked at his pictures. Police can send out a “ping” connected to the program and find a person who had downloaded pictures. The person does not ever have to leave his house, or buy a dirty book, or talk to anyone (even online). They just have to look at pictures.

(You have to be wondering why the sharing program, a multinational platform for passing smut, was not been indicted along with John. Me too.)

Based upon the ping, the police raided John Snider’s home. He was charged with distributing child pornography. “Distributing” – even though he only looked at the pictures.

Distribution, and the long prison terms it brings, should be reserved for people who sell videos or who run websites. It should fit those who actively share the filth. It was never meant for people who just looked at the pictures.

Court psychiatrists and private mental health professionals examined John Snider. No one believed he had any sexual interest in children. He was an obsessive/ compulsive collector of anything that caught his interest. He had seen a news report, downloaded a small number of pictures and that was it.  He did it, the Doctor said, as result of depression.

He had once been a valued executive, a senior insurance adjustor, until a back injury shortened his career and fed his depression. He was a family man, loved by his wife and children.  He had never acted out in any way and had never been in trouble.

His case was assigned to Judge Kathleen Sutula. That assignment is done in a public proceeding known as an arraignment. Other defendants and their lawyers are there. A gallows’ humor groan inevitably rises from the lawyers each time Judge Sutula’s name is called. She is considered, among other things, harsh.

I whispered to John Snider as we walked from the bench, “It will be OK”, more out of hope than optimism.

John Snider pled guilty, because he was guilty of possessing the pictures. He could be sentenced to probation, or prison time. No jail to years in the belly of the beast.

And here is the problem. You would think that similar people with similar crimes would get similar sentences. That is not the way it is. Sentences vary wildly depending upon the Judge.

At the sentencing, John Snider’s whole family was there: his wife, daughters and a son in law. Everyone knew the Judge had a reputation. We feared the hearing might be brutal.

Judge Sutula has added flowers and a nightstand light to her bench, presumably to soften the ambiance. The homey touch did not soften the dread of standing before her.

She had, once, given probation to a defendant in a case just like this. There must have been special circumstances, but she had done it before. The family believed (we all hoped) that John Snider: who had never been in any trouble, who was 69, and who no one thought was a danger, would avoid jail.

He did not. The Judge began a pointed lecture. The facts weren’t quite right and it seemed very personal. It ended with her sentencing him to 2 years on the 3 crimes. Hard, I thought as I sat there, but not outrageous. Then, in a tone I thought sounded more pointedly personal, she said that sentences would run consecutively. That means stacked one on the other. John Snider, at 69, would go to prison for 6 years.

With a broken back and a bad heart he was more likely than not to die in jail.

The deputies moved John Snider, quickly and silently, through the secret door. He did not have an opportunity to look back to his family. And in that instant, he was gone.

There was nothing in the Judge’s presentation that would have signaled consecutive sentences. Consecutive, one on top of another, is reserved for the worst criminals.

We appealed. It took a year. John Snider was in prison. The Appellate Court agreed with us. The sentence did not follow the law. The case was sent back for another sentencing. But the sentencing would be back in front of Judge Sutula again.

Just before the second sentencing I learned that a family member, the son-in-law, bragged that he had spoken to the Judge by phone before the first sentencing. He claimed he had given her an earful of what a terrible person John was. He had no evidence, but apparently harbored some grudge or insecurity. His father was a policeman, a boss in a suburb. The son in law was a policeman wannabe. He was flexing his muscles here. He could talk to the Judge privately- wield his policeman’s power in secret. And he was a coward. He had been at the sentencing, pretending to support the family.

A Judge cannot talk to anyone but the lawyers about the case and then only if both lawyers are present.  It is clear in the rules. If she does talk to anyone alone, she has to let the lawyers know. Either side has a right to deal with the consequences. It is called an ex-parte communication. Judge Sutula never let anyone know she had spoken to the son-in-law.

We believed she should be removed from the case. The procedure is to file an affidavit of disqualification to the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice decides the outcome.

We had information from the family members about what the son-in-law did. But, at this point, we had nothing from him.

We let the Judge know what we had learned. We asked her to remove herself. This time she was just plain angry. “In all of my years on the bench”, she said, “It has always been my policy to not talk to anyone”. She did not affirm or deny. She did not say anything meaningful. We filed what we had with the Supreme Court and laid out what we knew.

We do not know what communication took place between the Judge and The Supreme Court. Though we had to provide copies of our request to both the Judge and the Prosecutor, the Judge provided nothing to us.

Very quickly we received an order from the Court. The Judge had stated that she was not influenced. She said she did not recall a phone call. The Chief Justice wrote that it was only hearsay from the family, not the son-in-law himself. Request denied.

I do not claim what follows was intentional, or that the insult exists anywhere other than in my head. In the written order of the Supreme Court each time they referred to the Judge, it was “Judge Sutula”.  And each time they referred to me, it was “Milano.” “Milano claims…”- “Judge Sutula avers…”.

The sentencing was reset before Judge Sutula once again. Now we would face the scenario about which many of my colleagues had warned me. “You will only piss her off.”

We needed to attempt, again, to talk to the son-in-law. There was great concern over the family problems he had caused and now would cause. Nevertheless, we contacted him and he talked. Better said – he vomited out everything about his phone call with the Judge. None of what he had told her was true. He seemed to believe he was safe. He could say anything. John Snider was in jail.

We redid the motion for the Supreme Court with his affidavit attached and sent it in. The case was set for sentencing. Family, counselor and friends again appeared at the Courthouse ready for the worst.

Judge Sutula brought us into the Courtroom. This time she knew that there was evidence of the ex-parte discussion. She was about to sentence again, but decided that it might be better if she waited. To barrel ahead would look like she was out to get John Snider. Sentencing was postponed until the Supreme Court made another decision.

We waited.

Then, without warning, we got a phone call telling us that the case had be re-assigned to Judge Dick Ambrose.  Judge Sutula had voluntarily removed herself from the case. Shortly thereafter, we got an order from the Supreme Court telling us, in effect, that since the Judge had removed herself, they would go no further to investigate the Judge/son-in-law conversation.

And then came the third sentencing.

“Please Judge,” John Snider whispered as if he were ashamed and afraid his family would hear, “I cannot bear to wake up scared every morning. Scared that I will be stabbed. Scared that I will be beaten. Scared that I will be extorted. I have been in jail for 16 months. My wife and I have lost our home. She has been gravely ill, and I am sure the stress I caused her has worsened her illness.”

Judge Ambrose reduced the sentence from 6 years to time served, about a year and a half. That was punishment enough. He then ordered John Snider to be released to his family-under the strict supervision of county sheriff and the sex offender unit of the probation department.

John stood a moment, leaning on his cane, looking confused. Believing he was being released, he moved towards his wife. The deputy moved quickly. “Come with me,” back through the invisible door, back to jail. There was paperwork to do. You can’t leave jail until get the paperwork gets done.

John Snider had no street clothes. About 7 that evening the deputies gave him a jacket and some shoes to go with his jail orange coveralls.

And with that… the beast spit him out.

PS: There is an inscription above the Bench in the Court of Appeals. It says, “This is a government of law, not of men.” Do you believe that is true?


PPS: Judge Ambrose is Dick “Bam Bam” Ambrose of Cleveland Browns glory days. Lawyers suck up to Judges. Browns fans are hero worshipers. That is a lot of obsequiousness for one lawyer to bear.


* In the Belly of the Beast is a book by Norman Mailer and Jack Abbott. It detailed Mr. Abbott’s time in prison.



Some Rules On Giving a Speech, Or an Opening Statement, Or a Closing Argument

  1. Write a list of the points you want to make.
    1. Put it aside, revisit it, look for connections
  2. Prepare by Outline
    1. You are going to know it- you are not going to read it
    2. Think about and then write out the phrases where you most want to use the beauty of language
  3. Be eloquent, soar- but don’t overheat it
    1. The baseline is simple, clear, unambiguous language
    2. Use your “Beautiful Phrasing” sparingly- but use it
      1. Bring your audience from the foundation of understanding up into the sky with you
  4. Use the rule of 3’s
    1. The most important of which is (read it to the end, it is a little different)
      1. Tell them what you are gong to say
      2. Tell them
  5. Make sure you prepare an ending that they will remember to get yourself off stage
  6. Then-Put the draft aside, come back to it
    1. Look for new connections and ideas
    2. Remember that good editing most often means cutting out the dead wood
  7. Then- when you stand up
    1. Slow Down and Breathe before you say your first word
    2. Remember understanding happens most often in the pause.
      1. Take a silent moment to let the point sink in
  8. If nothing else, they will remember your energy and passion- Let it Go

Every Lawyer Needs to Understand Trial

Every Lawyer Needs to Understand Trial

Lawyers are- In Trial… On Trial… Trying a Case… Going to Trial, Preparing for Trial, In the Middle of a Trial, Just Coming Off a Trial– or working very hard to assure that their clients never undergo such a painful experience.

Trial is, in the mind of the populace, what lawyers do. But most lawyers will never enter a courtroom.

What all lawyers must do, regardless of their specialty, is protect their clients from the danger of trial, while laying the groundwork for success should that endgame become necessary. Our common principles; integrity, the professional effort, applying law to fact, mean just as much to the transactional lawyer as they do to the litigator.

Cases are disputes that end up in a lawyer’s office. Usually they arise from conduct never touched by lawyers. Sometimes they arise despite the best efforts of a lawyer to avoid the conflict. No lawyer wants his/her client to end up with a case.

Trial is the end game of all cases. It is the application of evidence to law. It is the crucible where evidence and law and skill and personality are mixed and burnt down to yield a verdict- a judgment.

This article is not intended to be treatise on how to conduct a trial. It is written, rather, with the hope it will provide a framework on how to approach the task.

You are not a shark, or a tiger, or a wolverine.

You are a teacher-at every turn.

It is your job to make people understand. You need to insure that your client understands why his case is different than his story, his chances of success and what the world of trials will be like for him.

It is your job to teach the judge, at your first opportunity and at every opportunity that you are right about your case. He or she will make decisions based upon conclusions drawn, whether realized or not. Right from the first contact with the Judge or the staff attorney, you need to load in the quality of your case and your competence as Counsel.

It is your job to teach your opponent. Don’t be overly concerned about a strategy of secrecy. Convince your opponent that they will lose and you will win the case – more likely on the safer ground of mediation or a settlement conference.

And then you need to teach the jury.

It is a case, not a story

There are books written about the use of story telling in trial. It is, after all, the way we communicate and pass on history. It is an important tool, but it is death if you overly rely on it as a trial tactic. ‘My story against yours,’ allows for too many extraneous factors; like emotion and prejudice and inherent power, to taint the result. Contrary to popular myth, all but lawyers with the most powerful clients want intelligent juries. They want juries willing to do hard examination of fact and law, self examining of their prejudices, and then make the difficult decisions necessary to render just verdicts.

Clients come in and tell their story. They ask you, “Do I have a case?” The lawyer’s question should be, “Can we win at trial?” expanded to, “What will the admissible evidence be?” and to “What is the law that applies?”

That method of analysis is issue based, rather than story based. It needs to be done as a threshold in every case.

In every case, do an issue-based analysis.

Do a complete exploration of your client’s version, exhausting every possible fact or explanation or witness. Your questions are, What else? Who else?, until there are no more answers left. Ask each client, and each potential witness: “What will the other players in the case say good about you- say bad about you- tell me about the situation?”

You also need to prepare a timeline-immediately. People are not that smart and it is difficult to follow a complex presentation. However, they do respond to a framework. The chronological framework gives them a tool to organize their thinking.

(Remember, sadly, that the most common motivation left in America is self-interest. As a result we have trained ourselves to believe that it is OK to lie to forward our interests. And beware of a new and viral strain of this virus, the person who will make up any lie to fit a nugget of fact. They have no compunction to lie on such an outrageous level that they achieve Orwellian credibility because no one believes that they could make that stuff up.)

The next thing you need to do is understand the law of the case. That is easier than you would think. Trial is the end game. The jury finds the facts based upon the presentation of evidence and applies them to the law. They are the ones you have to convince. Where do they get their law? They get in through the jury instructions. A plain English recitation of all of the elements of the trial, from what the cause of action is to what rules the jury uses to reach a verdict.

Read the general jury instruction on such issues as credibility and burden of proof until you can recite them by rote. Read the case-specific jury instructions at the onset of each case and read them again until you thoroughly understand what you have to prove.

Determine what may or may not be admissible, and then apply that evidence to the law.

Make a determination about whether you can win at trial. Repeat the process on a regular bases as the case progresses over time. Cases are fluid and often do not end up where they began.

Integrity Wins Cases

Cases are settled favorably (or won at trial) because you have shown the Judge and the opposition (and the Jury) that your case is real. You should win. They will only believe you, however, if you present yourself and your case with integrity.

Integrity, in this context, means that you will stake out the furthest reasonable position for your client. You will make the professional effort to be fully prepared on each issue. If you say it, regarding law or fact, you say it because you believe it to be true.

People watch and listen. A lawyer might get away with a stretch here or an outright falsehood there (lawyers do lie). But over time, people will watch what you do. You will either build a reputation for integrity or not. In my opinion, you will win more cases based upon a well-earned reputation for credibility and reasonableness than you will on good facts.

How do I prepare?

One way to look at a human being’s level of intelligence is to consider on how many levels of abstraction they can think ahead. Chess players think 64 moves or levels ahead. Composer writes symphonies blending levels of instruments and rhythms and tones. Most of us cannot think past lunch.

Young lawyers watch old lawyers operate smoothly in any situation and wonder how. Experience is an equal to intelligence as it allows you a higher point to jump off. You have seen the first 15 steps before, so it is easier to see the next.

So how does a lawyer overcome a lack of intelligence or experience? Through layered preparation. Do the analysis, set it aside and do it again. Do it with others. Each time you do it you will see more, understand more and your arguments and presentations will be more complete.

Has this ever worked in the real world?

I tried a murder case, by myself in Akron.

The allegation was that a young man murdered his girlfriend’s 2-year-old child by punching him in the stomach. The case was based upon expert testimony regarding the timing of the blow. If it was delivered the night before the baby died, the client was guilty.

I contacted James Patrick MD, the elected coroner from Toledo. He is a large, charismatic fellow, from Harvard Undergrad and Yale Med School (or Vice Versa).

We met 7 or 8 times as he taught me the science of immune cells and how they could be used to time insults to the body. He was convinced that the baby was injured days before. The client was not guilty.

My theory on direct examination, especially with experts is that it is a dance. The lawyer only leads imperceptibly, while the expert teaches the jury.

So we went to trial and it was a big deal. Packed courtroom. The elected County Coroner of Summit County testified for the state. Our current Chief Justice, then the elected prosecutor, presented for the state.

Dr. Patrick took the stand and I attempted to teach through him by gently leading through his presentation. Except to each of my questions he answered only yes or no. I tried to dance. He stood firm and I began to sweat. In desperation I said, “Dr., what do you want to tell the jury.” He got up, set up his presentation equipment and taught the jury, uninterrupted by anyone for more than an hour, exactly how and why the baby died. The client was acquitted on the first ballot and I had nothing to do with it.

But I did learn that while people might root for a fighter, they will listen to and believe a teacher.

“Every Lawyer Needs to Understand Trial” written by Jay Milano, was published in the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Journal, November 2013 Edition. 

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