High-profile Los Angeles trial attorneys told law students Thursday that lofty notions of jurisprudence, such as the presumption of innocence or burden of proof, are all well and good. But in defending clients, it's best to focus on how jurors actually think, they told a conference on celebrity justice at Loyola Law School.
For example, Richard Hutton, who specializes in cases of driving under the influence and was recently hired by Paris Hilton in her probation violation case, said it was easy to choose panelists for the clients he defends.
"You want to pick people in my little world.... that drink and drive," he said, to laughs from the students.
Hutton said he watches potential jurors on their breaks and notes the ones who smoke. "How many people do you know who smoke but don't drink, who are not going to" Alcoholics Anonymous?
The program -- called the Fidler Institute on Criminal Justice -- aims to give students a look at the "inner workings of the criminal justice system."
It was named for Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler, a Loyola alumnus who is now hearing the Phil Spector murder trial and canceled the day's court proceedings to attend the event.
Fidler said he hoped to expand the program in coming years.
"My goal is to make Loyola the destination for anyone who wants to practice criminal law," he said.
The seminar brought together some of the top practitioners of criminal law, both prosecutors and defense lawyers, to discuss the craft of preparing and arguing a case.
Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., who represented Michael Jackson at his child-molestation trial, said he often ignores the trial conventions that he was taught in law school.
He called the "presumption of innocence" total nonsense. "People don't keep their minds open until the end of trial," he said. "People make decisions in an instant."
He said defense attorneys need to open their cases with a strong, emotional statement. And they definitely shouldn't repeat the standard refrain that what attorneys say is not evidence.
"You're undercutting yourself," he said. "I hope they think what I say is evidence."
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson asked how defense attorneys decide whether to put their clients on the stand.
Harland Braun -- who has represented Robert Blake, John Landis and an officer acquitted in the Rodney G. King beating case -- said it's a tough call.
"Once you call your client to the stand, all the damage you've done to the prosecution's case disappears," he said.
"Now the focus is on if he's telling the truth," Braun said.
And the defendant can be discredited on cross-examination, he warned.
Mesereau said he neatly avoided having to put Jackson on the stand by persuading prosecutors to allow the attorney to play five hours of tape of the pop star under questioning.
As a result, Jackson was able to give his side without being cross-examined.
Braun said prosecutors often introduce tapes of questioning or statements by the defendant -- to their own detriment.
"They just can't resist throwing everything in," he said.
"We do make that mistake a lot," said Thomas O'Brien, the chief of the criminal division in the U.S. attorney's office in L.A. and a candidate to head the office, which became vacant upon the resignation of Debra Wong Yang.
"When a defendant makes a statement, the prosecutor sees all the inconsistencies," O'Brien said. "I tell them, we're not trying to prove he's a liar. We're trying to prove he's guilty."
O'Brien said that as a federal prosecutor, one of the difficulties is convincing a jury to believe informants, who are often people who took part in the crime and struck a plea deal.
"Those are the type of people jurors don't like -- they don't like snitches at all," O'Brien said.
The panelists also discussed how to work with the media during a celebrity trials and debated whether coverage influences verdicts.
Loyola Law School professor Stanley Goldman asked Braun what his rationale was when he went on a morning talk show and said of Blake's wife, "To know her was to kill her."
Braun corrected Goldman. "What I actually said was, 'If I was married to her, I could have killed her myself.' "
Braun then explained that he had meant to let people know that many people could have murdered her.
Other panelists included Cathryn Brougham, a deputy district attorney who brought child-molestation charges against William French Anderson, the head of USC's gene therapy lab; Mark Geragos, who defended Scott Peterson; Richard Gabriel, a jury consultant for numerous high-profile trials; John Hueston, a top white-collar defense attorney and a former federal prosecutor who was on the Enron task force; and K.C. Maxwell, who represented I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.