Sara Stapleton

Sara Stapleton studied music at University of North Texas, graduating with a degree in voice performance from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She taught music at Incarnate Word Academy in Brownsville before attending law school at Thurgood Marshall in Houston. While in college, she served an internship assisting in the voir dire of a capital murder case in Nashville, Tennessee, where she worked for one of the top federal death penalty lawyers in the country, Rick Kammen. Sara, who serves as a director for the Cameron County Bar Association, was the first intern at Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyer College near Dubois, Wyoming.

First Blood

Navy blue suit. Close-toed heels. Hair neatly coiffed. I look the part, but will this facade prove to provide me with the skills to convince these jurors that I am a competent lawyer? Even more importantly, will this material persona help to relay the truth about my client and the fact that he has been wrongly accused?

I’ve given this client a lot of thought. When I first met with him and his wife at the IHOP Saturday morning, I learned that he had been charged with terroristic threat. Wow, that sounds pretty bad, I thought. He sits across the table from me with his small 5’5”, 130-pound frame, his calloused hands from hard labor, and his Mickey Mouse T-shirt. To his left sat his gap-toothed, red (almost pink) haired wife, who had a smile that could light up a room and a laugh that was so contagious, you couldn’t help but chuckle even though you might not understand a word she’s saying. I thought, We’ll they’re sweet. He doesn’t seem like a “terrorist.”

The time has come. As I sit in this courtroom as a lawyer about to embark on my first actual trial, I feel the panic set in. I’ve written the opening statement. I’ve practiced it in front of my mirror with my not-so-forgiving audience at least a dozen times. I attempt to block out the fear of failure by positive reinforcements that seem to do nothing more then intensify my dread of collapse. Legs shaking, I somehow manage to stand up with my trusty cheat sheet in hand and complete my very first journey ten feet up to the podium. “May it please the court?” Oh my gosh, these are either great acoustics, or the middle of the courtroom is microphoned. That was unexpected. I continue. “Ladies and gentlemen, things aren’t always what they seem.” I am visibly shaking. Pull yourself together, I think to myself. “Let me tell you the story of a man poorly misunderstood.”

As I begin to tell his story, the doubt and fear somehow seem to slowly seep from my body. I put down that cheat sheet. Maybe it was the dozen times I practiced in front of the mirror. Maybe it was the attentive faces of those six jurors. Maybe it was the heels. Or maybe, just maybe, it was that a part of me, regardless of how different I may be from this man accused of a terroristic threat, was able to find a similarity that connected us on a different level. We are both humans whose liberty is priceless.

The trial took place over two long days. I manage to survive a few direct and cross examinations. We rest. The state rests. Closings. Now we wait.

The prosecution is texting his buddies back in the office, confidently awaiting his victory like a farmer who has not only counted his chickens, but has proudly announced their arrival to the market before they have actually hatched. I sit there wondering, When the jury foreman says “guilty” will my client understand what that means or will the interpreter sitting behind him have to clear it up in Spanish. What seems like an eternity of waiting turns out to be about only three hours. The clerk pokes her head into the courtroom: “We have a verdict.”

Well, this is it. The foreman stands. We stand. I make sure to have a pen in my hand to divert my nervousness from a gri­mace on my face to a death grip on the pen. A one-word verdict could change this man’s life, take away his liberty, curse his name, damn his future. I hold my breath.

“Not guilty.”

I exhale. The prosecution scowls. Our poorly misunderstood man walks through the courtroom threshold a free and unmarked man.

I realize that the world would not have ceased to rotate in the event of a guilty verdict. The birds would continue to sing. The rains would continue to fall. But, the quality of a man’s life would have been severely diminished. His small stature might not stand as proudly and his wife’s smile might not shine as brightly. If for nothing more than that, I now know that this is what being a lawyer is all about.