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My first thought on meeting Little Rock attorney Bill James was that he looked like an Arkansas lawyer, whatever that means. Beefy, well-dressed, with a desk as big as an aircraft carrier and offices in a Victorian mansion down on Broadway, James was Curtis Vance's attorney in the Marianna rape case since the time Vance was arrested in Nov. 2008. James' strategy in the Vance rape trial might look, at first glance, like no strategy at all: He passed most witnesses without cross-examination, asking — by his own count —only around 30 questions total during the whole trial. He honored Curtis Vance's request to take the stand in his own defense, even though anybody who has ever watched anything vaguely legal on TV, from the O.J. trial to "Matlock," knows that putting a defendant on the stand in a felony case is something just short of assisted suicide. Though James remained largely silent during cross-examination, it was during his opening and closing statements that he hammered home the idea that the prosecution hadn't adequately explained the numbers or the science behind the DNA evidence they'd presented, and that there were others who might have committed the crime.
James' strategy didn't sit well with juror Johnny Malone. Malone, for one, said he believes the defense knew there was a chance of a mistrial, and attacked the validity of DNA evidence in opening and closing statements while passing witnesses without questioning in order to confuse the jury. "Basically, what they threw at the jury was that everything was circumstantial, and evidently it stuck," Malone said. "That weighed a lot with the jurors that were set on cutting him loose. They didn't get to hear any rebuttal whatsoever from the defense, and then they had to make the decision themselves."
James makes no apologies for his defense of Curtis Vance, or any client — even the ones that might be guilty.
"You may not care about Curtis Vance," James said. "You may not give a crap about him one way or the other. But the bottom line is: [if] we protect his rights, we protect everybody's. Everyone has the right to be presumed innocent, and we're not just going to just find people guilty because we think they're guilty."
James said that it was not his original intention to handle the DNA evidence in the Vance case the way he did. As late as the morning the trial began, he said, he still planned on delivering a long presentation that would have explained to the jury how the science of DNA came about, how analysts arrive at the numbers, and arguments against its validity (which, he said, "some people would say was intended to create more of a smoke screen than clarification").
When he saw that prosecutors weren't doing what he considered a very good job of explaining the DNA evidence, however, his strategy changed. "We thought: well, maybe we'll go the other way. Maybe we'll just say it's their burden. I'm not going to fill in the holes for them. I think that if the DNA was the issue, our initial defense strategy would have maybe helped convict him."
James said the decision to not ask any questions at all of the DNA-related witnesses was a "daring" move, "but sometimes when you're not going to be able to help yourself with a witness, sometimes just saying, 'Hey I've got nothing' as a show of strength kind of sends a message to the jury that [a prosecution witness] didn't say anything."
James' contention is that the prosecution made a miscalculation when they decided to focus largely on the DNA evidence while ignoring problems in their case, especially those created by questions of whether Curtis Vance was the only person who might have committed the crime.
"I think they thought, going in, we've got the numbers," James said. "We don't want to create this circus. We don't want to have to bring all this other stuff in, so we're just going to convict him on just this [the DNA] ... In the opening and closing statements, I said: It's a valid science, but what have they proven to you?"
Asked if race played a factor in the mistrial, James said he doesn't know, but points out the prosecution had juror strikes left over when jury selection was done. Too, James said, both the prosecutor and deputy prosecutor in the case are from the area, and "certainly should know who is honest and who is not." If they had concerns about the honesty of a juror or their integrity toward the system, he said, they could have told the judge that.
James said that there were holes in the prosecution's case against Curtis Vance, and he exploited those holes. If the jury didn't understand the DNA evidence, or there was a concern they might not accept it as valid, he said, the prosecutors should have taken more time to explain it to them.
"There weren't a lot of college-educated people on that jury," he said. "But they're still jurors, they're still citizens, and you still have an obligation to prove to them what's going on. If that means you have to spend a day baby-feeding it to them to make sure they understand what's going on, then that's your obligation."For more of Bill James' thoughts about life as a defense attorney, see the "I Believe" statement he submitted to Arkansas Times just after the Vance rape trial.
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