First, after 14 hours of covering the Daniel Rak murder trial, I can tell you firsthand that Kane County really doesn’t need a jail. If they sentenced offenders to sit in a courtroom gallery for the better part of a day the recidivism rate would drop to zero.
Those benches should be classified as cruel and unusual punishment.
Second, as we’re about to dive into the final trial day, please understand that when I compliment someone, or take them to task, it’s an in-the-moment kind of thing. If the evidence changes, my mind changes, too.
For example, I can’t tell you how encouraging it was to see Judge D. J. Tegeler return to the person I’ve known and loved for the last 12 years. I understand how putting on the black dress can be a heady proposition, but that’s no excuse for treating people poorly.
Not only did Tegeler treat the jury with respect, dignity and humility, but in those 14 hours I disagreed with just one of his rulings.
Third, if I question someone’s professional competence, it is not intended to demean them as an individual. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. To wit, the Cubs still haven’t responded to my incessant entreaties to play centerfield.
With all of that out of the way, let’s get started!
In the words of that great philosopher Lemony Snicket, their final trial day was certainly “a series of unfortunate events.”
Though we’ve previously touched on it, for the life of me, I cannot understand why lead prosecutor Alex Bederdka put Kane County forensic pathologist James Filkins back on the stand knowing he’d essentially committed perjury in regards to taking tissue samples from Jeffrey Rak’s body.
Not only did Filkins originally testify that no samples were taken, but he denied their existence when lead public defender Kelli Childress emailed him back in June. Filkins tried to explain it away as a miscommunication, but the horrified looks on the jurors’ faces said it all.
I’m almost as baffled by Bederka’s decision to let co-counsel Lori Anderson do the closing. My guess is he wanted to offset what he perceived to be an almost all female defense team advantage, but let me tell ya, it didn’t work.
Because, while Bederka can command a courtroom when he wants to, Anderson cannot. She:
· Walks seriously hunched over
· Stood behind the lectern the entire time
· Came across as mean, petty and arrogant
· Talks in a monotone
· Generally lacks an affect
She did get right in front of the jury, but the separation created by podium negated that effect. So, halfway through her summation the jury got those glazed looks and focused on everything but her.
To make matters much worse, her closing argument wasn’t proactive – it was a reaction to many defense contentions. And that doesn’t work when the State has to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
I will clearly stipulate that two cases aren’t enough to make a final judgement – and I’m the crime victim in one of them – but I’m truly beginning to doubt Bederka’s competence as an attorney.
So, the defense summation reality was, all Childress had to do was be competent and the verdict was hers.
But she was so much more than competent!
And I can say this because Childress and I do the same thing – we convince people to vote for our clients. The major difference is, she has to convince 13 people while I have to persuade 100,000. But the communication strategies are the same.
Repeatedly hammer your point home with a simple and memorable message that resonates with the voters – or jury. And she did just that:
1. Childress (finally) thanked the jury, and she did so in a heartfelt and direct eye-contact way. How bleepin’ difficult is it to show some gratitude for those folks’ service and acknowledge their humanity? The prosecution clearly considered them to be a mere accessory.
2. She did resort to the lectern, but quickly moved away from it so there was no barrier between her and the jury. Juries HATE IT when they can’t see an attorney’s hands. And if that 5 foot 6 inch woman ever stands behind a podium in my presence again, I will jump the gallery divider and tackle her before court security can do a damn thing about it.
3. To say Childress commanded the courtroom would be a massive understatement. I’m sure she wouldn’t like this analogy, but anyone who’s had ever a pet parakeet knows just how loud and demanding those birds can be. They can completely take over a room.
So clearly, size doesn’t matter in some cases, and courtroom presence is clearly one of them. Childress effectively used the courtroom space, her non-verbal communication was perfect, and she was just loud and indignant enough to leave no doubt about who was in charge, but not lose the jury,
It’s too bad they don’t allow cameras in Kane County courtrooms, because high school girls should be required to watch that closing statement as a lesson in assertiveness without being mean or nasty.
4. Then, while the prosecution posted text on the courtroom monitors, Childress wrote her main arguments out on a large white board. That meant the jury had to watch those words being formed. “The State is unable to prove x,” “The State is unable to prove y” etc. It was a simple stroke of genius. She has nice handwriting too!
5. Childress drew the jury in by starting off moderately and building to a crescendo at just the right time. That’s exactly how a good political campaign works. Peak too soon and you lose ‘em. Don’t peak at all and you lose the election. And the Albert Einstein quote was the perfect start from which everything else flowed.
6. As she got more forceful, Childress made it abundantly clear that the defense didn’t have to prove a damn thing, but she would anyway! Using a series of crime scene photographs, she provided a step-by-step outline of another possible cause of death, and her theory was far more plausible than the prosecution’s.
7. Then she tied it all together:
· An overzealous police investigator who ignored the facts
· A prejudicial investigation as a result
· So everyone blamed everyone else for botching the investigation
· The prosecution’s “facts” don’t fit the evidence
· Daniel Rak loved his father
· There’s enough reasonable doubt to drive a truck through it
And as she made those final points, she slowly moderated her delivery, drawing the jury back in such that most of them were leaning towards her as she finished. Even the jurors I perceived as unsympathetic to the defense were getting teary eyed.
It was a virtually flawless exercise in effective persuasive communication that lead to one of the shortest first degree murder deliberations in trial history. If, like Tegeler did as an attorney, Childress learns to connect with the jury DURING a trial, she will be unbeatable.
In the end, Daniel Rak was convicted of aggravated domestic violence which can carry a three to six year prison sentence, but I’m bettin’ Judge Tegeler goes with time served and probation.
I also hope that Mr. Rak never touches alcohol again – I can barely look at a bottle of tequila after that trial.
A final point. Right before the defense summation, the large courtroom computer monitors stopped working and it took a bevy of IT people 30 minutes to get them going again. Though it certainly wasn’t planned – Childress’ administrative assistant was beside herself trying to correct the problem – much like that game seven World Series rain delay saved the Cubs, the pause put some distance between the two closing arguments.
And that didn’t hurt the defense one bit. Was someone else looking out for Daniel? I suppose we’ll never know.