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Judge's Seat and Gavel in North Carolina
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Judge's Seat and Gavel in North Carolina

Tides That Bind: Codefendants in Trials

I. Trial Lawyers

No one should ever go into any major case without qualified help from a Charlotte trial lawyer. While this experience is important for every case, it may be most important in the earliest stages where there is a high likelihood that there will be codefendants or co-respondents. The tide of charges rises and falls, often based on how the State may choose to prosecute one or other defendant in an unequal or unfair manner. An experienced Charlotte trial lawyer often helps address vital issues, protecting your separate personal interests, where one person may be or may not be as equally liable.

It is also vitally important to make decisions about whether or not one attorney can represent two clients in one case. An experienced trial lawyer can not only address common issues for two clients or more: potential conflicts at trial may require a special expertise to work with another attorney representing another defendant. All of these reasons are especially crucial in the case we will look at next...where evidence of a separate crime simply did not “wash out.” The crucial factor that undermined conflicting stories was because the victims both had unique blood types.

II. Different Versions, Same Blood Types

Versions of an incident, whether a crime or a contract, can vary wildly. Many incidents are committed under the effects of alcohol or other drugs. Visibility is often an issue. And of course, as an experienced trial lawyer knows, self-interest often changes or shades memories.

The Charlotte trial attorney in this case presented evidence that Mr. Laws had not participated in a double homicide. The first basis for challenging Law’s conviction was lack of evidence that the two codefendants acted in what is called “in concert.” As the trial lawyer noted, there are specific facts that must be present to prove a common plan or purpose. To prove wrongdoing, by reason of acting in concert, mere presence may be enough...even if only one of the actors actually commits an offense. Ultimately, it was this second factor that the lawyer was not able to overcome on appeal.

III.   Trials: Coordinated Planning?

The codefendants in this case eventually ended up essentially attacking each other's credibility during the trial. Ideally, this is best left to the person bringing the suit against them. While there is never a guarantee that the common interest of people accused of a crime, or sued civilly, will make it possible to have a coordinated defense. In this case, it was pointed out by the Charlotte trial lawyer that both codefendants had consumed large amounts of alcohol, and both even had serious mental impairments even while sober. These facts led to some basis for doubting their ability to act in concert.

Ultimately, the most damning evidence came from the blood types of the two victims. Although the two victims were unrelated, they both shared a unique blood type. There had been uncontroverted evidence that both codefendants were always “close proximity” to each other. The  trial lawyer was unable to overcome the presumption that they had picked up the two drunken victims together, and that they had even cooperated in disposing of the evidence after the murders. Probably worst of all, was the fact that the unique blood types of the victims was on both codefendants’ clothing. This allowed a jury to the assumption that both men had been close enough to have coordinated their actions.

These can be extremely difficult cases, and the conduct of the trial court judge is often a key factor in how an appeals court will uphold or overturn a ruling. It was important to challenge the way that the trial judge had conducted the trial. Ultimately, this may allow for a new trial with a different judge. The experienced trial lawyer in this case demonstrated how important it is to be familiar with the specific rules for appealing potential misconduct by a trial court judge.

IV.  Private Problems, Judge’s Public Error?

A well-qualified trial lawyer knows how sensitive a jury can be to crucial nuances. Not only does the state and the trial often tread carefully in terms of jury sensibilities, so do some judges. In this case, the trial lawyer was concerned that the judge had crossed a line in terms of trying to be cooperative or even complicit with juror sensitivities. Specifically, the trial lawyer argued that it was improper for the judge to have said the following to the jury:

“We're very pleased to have the jury back again. I apologize to you for the delays. There were several matters that required the court's attention this morning. It took much longer than we anticipated. I think when I was back earlier that each of you told me you were having no problems this morning.”

The potential problem came from the fact that the trial judge had started other days of the trial, by similarly asking the jurors to raise their hands “if they had any problems they needed to talk to the court about.” The judge went on to say that he would “discuss such problems privately” with them. Although the appeals court agreed that this was a matter of serious concern, it also noted that there was no evidence introduced that any of the jurors had said they had “such problems.” More importantly, the trial lawyer could not actually show that any private conversations with the judge had been held by any members of the jury. So, while this was an important issue, the Court of Appeals did not agree with the trial lawyer that harm had occurred. At the same time, the Court of Appeals chastised the trial court judge by saying it was important to caution against any “private” discussions in similar situations.

An experienced trial lawyer will point to these types of private or sidebar juror contacts as very improper. A trial lawyer protects the absolute right of a defendant or codefendant to be present during any communications with the jurors. This ability to avoid any type of improper influence or tampering with the jury (even by a judge) means: get help from an experienced lawyer.


If you, a family member or a loved one have questions about any trial, involving related claims, your legal rights or hearings, including (but not only) co-defendant issues or joint civil trials, please contact us.  You will speak with an experienced trial lawyer, who can best answer your questions about how your separate rights can be protected.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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