Details of the case:
Our client was charged with capital murder for being involved, aiding and abetting, and being an accomplice in a robbery of ‘Krystal’. The shooter was 19 at the time. Our client was the lookout, and then there was a getaway driver. The shooter was tried first and got the death penalty.
They were charging that our client was guilty because he essentially knew that the shooter was going to go in to Krystal and kill people, because the shooter actually worked at the Krystal. So, presumably, our client would have known that the only way the shooter would escape after the robbery would be to kill the employees to avoid getting caught. That was the State’s theory. The State was going to seek the death penalty. After a long time, rife with TLC methods, the jury convicted our client of what you call a felony murder, which is basically being involved in a felony when a murder occurs. By finding that our client did not have the particular intent to kill anybody, but he merely aided in a robbery where the shooter at some point decided to kill two employees, our client’s life was spared.
When did you first become involved with TLC?
Jake Watson: I attended the college in 2006; the three week program, and I have attended at least a couple of grad courses since then. I was also on staff for a couple of years. TLC changed the way I look at cases, the way I looked at the world. It opened up a different perspective like a “third eye”. I’m always applying those kind of things, really, whether I’m conscious of it or not.
Brian White: I’ve been practicing for twenty years and I knew a good bit about what I was doing, but at TLC I got to try to do things differently that made sense. Those sure are not the methods that you are taught in law school or that you are encouraged to employ in the courtroom. It was a good thing for me to do at that point in my career. There is just not a bad time to go. There’s just never a point where I would say it is too late for me to learn how to do anything differently or more effectively.
How pivotal were your TLC resources to this case?
Jake Watson: TLC was heavily involved in how we prepared for and presented this case. When we got appointed to represent Ezekiel (our client), we were both committed to getting to know this young man. At TLC, we learned how important it is to get to know your client, and get to know him well before the trial — especially in this kind of situation where the prosecution is seeking to put your client to death. At some point, another former TLC faculty member, Cindy Short came onto the case, about a year before trial. Brian and I then went to the TLC Death Penalty program that she led (which is now broadened at TLC to meet all major criminal defense charges), so that gave us an opportunity to work in a small group on Ezekiel’s case with Cindy and others. We even got to do a focus group with faculty member and Atlanta Attorney Tyrone Nelson. And one of TLC’s psychodramatists, Louise Lipman, was the director of one of the small group that we worked within and that was all a huge help.
Brian White: Another resource we had during the trial was TLC’s long-standing special guest Billy Moore, who also attended the TLC Death Penalty program. If you know his story at all, you understand how helpful he was in reaching out to our client. Having been there himself and being very much guilty of the murder he was charged with, Billy shared with us his story about how to take responsibility and how to get you to the point of being resolved to settle the case, if possible. The work of Billy Moore certainly helped us to create a circumstance where the jury saw it just like we did. This is not ‘a whodunit’, it’s like a ‘what did he do, what was the state of mind, what did he know about what the co-defendants were going to do’. The jury heard all of that evidence and believed our case. They were listening for what we told we told them to listen for – we cleared all that up in jury selection using TLC methods. You know just radically telling the truth which is something that you hear at TLC. With that TLC strategy in mind, we took race-head on and I did my part of voir dire in a way that made myself vulnerable, by getting there first and saying my truth: “I’m a 47 year old white man who grew up in the deep south. Nobody ever told me I was better than a black person, but as a child I somehow got the message that we were not altogether equal. That conditioning did not magically vanish with education or life experience. In unconscious ways, I believe anyone my age can have biases reassert themselves even when we know better. ” When I said that to my jury pool, people were able to be honest about that same feeling because I had first been honest about it myself. That’s something we learn about at the ranch. I went to TLC last summer, I think that my approach would have been very different if I didn’t have that association with my co-counsel with us both having gone through those processes together.
Was the jury’s empathy towards your client’s childhood a key part of the outcome?
Jake Watson: That’s an interesting part of this case. I wrote all the jurors a letter thanking them for listening to us and sparing my client’s life. I gave them an opportunity to give me a call or contact me if they wanted to. When my office ended up making contact with one of the jurors, that juror wanted to get to know our client better and had several visits with him at the jail. It’s pretty impressive, she’s gone on to develop a relationship with our client’s family and I’m telling you, our client grew up in complete and utter poverty. So this woman is helping Ezekiel’s mom where she can and helping Ezekiel’s little brother with school supplies and clothes and trying to be somewhat of a support system for the family as well as maintaining a relationship with Ezekiel while he’s in prison. That juror testified at Ezekiel’s sentencing hearing. She testified not to what the verdict was, what she heard in evidence, but she testified to what she had witnessed: the home that he came from, the abuse that his mom had suffered at the hands of his dad, the poverty he grew up in, and also that she got to know him at the jail between the trial and the sentencing. That he was remorseful and thought that he could make a difference given a chance, and encouraged the judge for whatever leniency. He ended up getting sentenced to life in prison, but that gives him opportunity for parole in, I think, ten more years.
Are there any parts of the trial where you feel as though if you nail this part of the case, you’ve won?
Jake Watson: They’re all important. The voir dire, the direct examination, the cross examination. It is about threading your story through everything. From the very beginning, when you see the prospective jurors, when you’re doing voir dire, start threading the story at that point, and continue to thread it through each witness to the closing statement. Whether it just be a small piece, we all see your client’s story through each witness. They’re all equally important because you’re doing different things with all of them, but the most important thing is to be constantly telling your story.
Storytelling being such a huge part of what you do, how much do you think that your experience as a newspaper reporter has impacted what you do and your success?
Jake Watson: Oh, I think it’s probably the most important thing I did besides attending the Trial Lawyers College. It helped me learn to tell a story, to communicate, to put together a compelling story. The editor of the paper I wrote for would always say when there wasn’t anything going on, “You won’t get a story by sitting in the office.” The way that translates to being a lawyer is that you’re not going to be able to put your case together without getting off your ass, going to see your client in jail if they’re in jail, going to meet their family, going out to the crime scene, observing, listening, using all your senses and getting a feel for everything. That’s really part of Ezekiel’s case. Brian and I would just take a day and drive around looking for witnesses because a lot of these folks were transient or live in housing projects. Catching them at home or them wanting to talk to a couple of white folks is not appealing. So you actually get a feel for where Ezekiel grew up. For instance, his mom was in labor and didn’t have a car and had to walk to the hospital to deliver Ezekiel’s little brother, CJ. That’s about a mile’s walk in the middle of the night through a very poor part of town, a rough part of town. Ezekiel and his sister had to walk her to the hospital because his dad was not around. We went back and did that walk just to get a feel for what that story was. But back to the question. The newspaper… It helped me understand how to do that. You’ve got documents to look at and all that stuff, but this is about touching people on a human level. If you can’t do that with your client, you can’t do it with witnesses and his family, then you’re in trouble when it comes to the jury. You can be the smartest lawyer in all the cases all day long, but if you don’t know about your client and about people and caring and all that, if you don’t just take a minute to care, you’re not going to be very good at doing this. Ezekiel didn’t testify, but he was telling a story by his relationship with us in the courtroom. A lot of evidence that the jury sees isn’t through the witness stand but it’s through how people sit in court, how people are acting, and I think all of that comes into the story.
About Jake Watson:
Jake Watson represents people accused of crimes in state and federal court. He has earned the acquittal of one man who had previously been sentenced to death row. He has also earned the acquittal of two other people charged with capital murder and acquittals in other cases in both state and federal court. Before becoming a lawyer, Mr. Watson was a newspaper reporter and covering a capital murder trial peaked his interest in becoming a criminal defense lawyer. He graduated from Gonzaga University School of Law where he was an associate editor of Gonzaga Law Review. During law school Mr. Watson interned at the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho and in the Federal Capital Habeas Unit in Moscow, Idaho, assisting in death penalty appeals. In 2006, he attended Trial Lawyers College and later attended the Death Penalty College. Mr. Watson has served as faculty at Trial Lawyers College. He attended the National Criminal Defense College in Macon, Georgia and the Clarence Darrow Death Penalty College in Chicago, Illinois. Mr. Watson has been honored by the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association for his work on capital cases.
About Brian White:
Brian White has practiced law in Alabama for almost twenty-two years. His practice in North Alabama is primarily centered on criminal defense. As an opponent of the death penalty, capital defense is how Brian tries to defeat this injustice — case by case. Training at the TLC Death Penalty College and association with the TLC community has helped Brian find ways to wage these battles more effectively.
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