Terry Jackson Friend of the Constitution Award

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Education

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Terry Jackson was a Savannah criminal defense lawyer known for his dedication to both his clients and his profession. He lived his life fighting for the idea that every citizen accused should be entitled to a vigorous and competent defense. He was also a true believer in the Constitution -- that the spirit of that document was to protect the rights of individuals against undue government intrusion. Terry left us in 2012, but only after being the first recipient of the Terry Jackson Friend of the Constitution Award. The award recognizes those who give a lifetime of service to their profession and to their clients: those who take on and vigorously defend those cases that are difficult and unpopular.

I was both surprised and honored to be contacted by Sam Dennis, the President of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who informed me that the Board of Directors agreed that I would be the 2015 recipient. I’m privileged to be able to follow in Terry Jackson’s footsteps and also those of Doug Peters, the 2013 recipient, and Dwight Thomas, the 2014 award winner. I will cherish the honor, and do my best to be true to the award and to Terry’s legacy.

DOJ Fails to Address Problems with Forensic Evidence

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Opinion

I read, with disgust, an article announcing that the only federal judge on a commission to improve forensic science in the criminal justice system had to resign in protest after criticizing the Department of Justice for causing the commission to be wholly ineffective. US District Judge Jed S. Rakoff could no longer tolerate DOJ's refusal to work towards a better exchange of information between prosecutors and defense attorneys, particularly regarding forensic experts.

Judge Rakoff said, "I believe it reflects the determination by the Department of Justice to place strategic advantage over a search for the truth." His words are both troubling and frightening. I liken this to prosecutors who protest or object to new trials when DNA evidence exonerates a convicted citizen. If we are to maintain trust in a criminal justice system -- a system already under attack for its deficiencies, we cannot allow artificial inadequacies to be injected intentionally.

Prosecutors are to seek justice, not just convictions. The awesome power we entrust to them has devastating consequences when abused. How can any prosecutor argue that less disclosure is better? Justice does not live in the shadows cast by hidden information, it only survives out in the open.

We look at the Department of Justice as being not only the best law enforcement agency in our country, but throughout the world. But that is an honor that DOJ must earn every day through honesty, integrity and transparency. Citizens, particularly citizens accused, deserve no less.

The Marissa Alexander Case Shows the Problems With Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Opinion

cnnThe Marissa Alexander case provides an excellent example of how an "imperfect" self-defense argument can have devastating and disproportionate consequences. Because the jury did not accept Ms. Alexander's self-defense argument, they had to convict. What they probably didn’t realize (because in Florida juries aren’t told the sentences attached to their verdicts) is that they triggered Florida’s 10-20-Life mandatory sentencing requirement.

In Florida, a person who uses a gun in the commission of certain felonies (including aggravated assault) must face minimum mandatory sentencing. If the gun is possessed during the commission of one of the enumerated felonies, a minimum 10-year sentence is required. If the gun was discharged, as it was in this case, it is 20 years. Florida’s minimum mandatory sentences are served day-per-day; there is no early release.

It might be appropriate to impose minimum mandatories on violent felons who use guns to further the commission of a crime such as armed robbery. The idea, however, that Florida does not allow any discretion--even judicial discretion--for more complicated scenarios truly makes it difficult to adjudicate these cases.

Dynamic Voir Dire Presentation at National Trial Lawyers Summit

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Education

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The National Trial Lawyers association has drawn together attorneys from across the country of the most outstanding caliber. Traditionally, NTL had been an association for civil trial lawyers, but recently they recognized that criminal defense attorneys share many things in common with civil lawyers -- perhaps most notably, a passion for trial. Our NTL ranks include 5000 civil lawyers and 5000 criminal lawyers.

Our program this year featured a mix of civil and criminal defense lawyers speaking about the different aspects of trial. Distinguished civil trial lawyer Howard Nations gave an amazing presentation about the psychology of jury selection, and I spoke about the concept of “Dynamic Voir Dire,” a process where every jury question serves multiple purposes: to reveal biases, to foster connections between potential jurors, and to build a rapport with the venire, and to introduce the critical themes of the case. Willy Gary gave an amazing presentation on winning big with great closings, and Chris Searcy blessed us with a moving, impassioned closing argument.