A Winning Approach
Keeley Blanchard recently returned to Michigan from Boulder, Colorado, where she collaborated with fellow trial lawyer and Trial Lawyers College faculty member Jason Savela in trying a sexual assault case. Here’s what Keeley had to say after the client was acquitted on all charges:
“It was a real pleasure to work with Jason on this case. The two of us met in 2012 at a Trial Lawyers College regional program, and have attended many graduate trainings together since that time. When Jason invited me to try the case with him, I knew it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
Our client was charged with sexual assault, arising out of an interaction that occurred between our client, an 18-year-old college student, and a young woman, also a college freshman, at a fraternity party in 2015. After a consensual sexual act that took place in a closet in the fraternity house, the young woman falsely accused our client of rape. This set off a two-year period in which our falsely accused client was suspended from school, required to move back home, put his dreams of being a doctor on hold, and had serious criminal charges hanging over his head. If convicted, he would have faced potential prison time and sex offender registration.
Naturally, our client and his family initially wanted to demonstrate what a horrible person his accuser was – to go after her on the witness stand and prove that she was lying by placing her in as negative a light as possible. However, what Jason proposed was a different way to try the case, using methods that both of us had learned at the Trial Lawyers College.
Jason brought in a psychodramatist, Kaitlyn Larimer, to work with the client in the process of discovering the story – a way to go deeper and find not just the facts of the client’s story, but also the emotional content. In doing so, we were able to gain an understanding of our client’s emotions and actions, as well as an understanding of why this young accuser was not telling the truth about her interaction with our client on that evening.
We knew that attacking the accuser just wasn’t right – she had been caught up in a university system that had encouraged her to lie and exaggerate, and in many ways had been as victimized by the system as our client had been. We didn’t believe that a jury would respond well to attacking the accuser – even when she was being untruthful.
Jason and I set about to learn as much as we could about the accuser’s story, and to reverse roles with her in order to discover the feelings that were causing her to make this accusation against our client. This allowed me to do a cross-examination of the accuser which was non-combative, yet demonstrated to the jury that she had many reasons to make up this accusation.
Jason incorporated these same principles in opening statement, and truly made this case about telling the truthful story, and not about attacking the accuser.
We also made the trial about showing – not just telling – the jury what the truth was in the case. Jason contracted with an investigator who took measurements of the closet where the interaction between the client and his accuser took place. The closet was rebuilt using metal bars and foam board – to the exact size of the real closet. Jason had the closet admitted as an exhibit at trial, and I was able to get the client off the stand during his direct examination, and allow the jury to see what truly was and was not possible with two people standing inside that closet.
Photos of the closet exhibit, admitted at trial in August of 2017.
In the end, the jury was able to see our client’s story, and reached the right verdict. After four and a half hours of deliberation, the jury found our client not guilty of sexual assault.
The most rewarding moment for me was when our client’s father came back into the courtroom, and thanked us – not simply for winning the case, not for earning a not guilty verdict – but for doing it the right way. He thanked us for focusing on the truthful story of the case, and for treating the accuser with empathy rather than attacking her. Despite some initial skepticism, he had found empathy for the accuser, too, and understood that the jury did as well. And treating her accordingly had saved his son’s life.”
Keeley Blanchard is a Michigan trial lawyer and criminal defense attorney who focuses her practice on defending those accused of serious crimes such as sex assault, child molestation, and murder.
Jason Savela is a Colorado trial lawyer who represents individuals facing criminal charges, as well as individuals who have been injured through the negligence of others.