A blog by Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Commenting on criminal law issues of local and national interest.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Former Prosecutor's Side Business: Testifying Made Simple

With no fanfare, this story hit the South Florida Sun-Sentinel yesterday.

The headline?

"County commissioner's daughter paid to teach deputies how to testify."

The focus of the story? Well, it began with this:

The daughter of Palm Beach County Commissioner Jess Santamaria has received more than $56,000 in taxpayer money to teach sheriff's deputies how to testify in court.

Yes, rile up mom and pop taxpayer - the story is nepotism - the daughter of a politician got a gig at the expense of taxpayers.

Then we have the "oh, by the way:"

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw signed a contract with Michelle Santamaria last year, after she proposed the classes for deputies and sergeants. The office had never offered training in court testimony, Bradshaw said.

Of course continuing on the focus of the story being the use of taxpayer dollars, we have the typical and shallow denials:

Bradshaw and both Santamarias said Jess Santamaria's position as a commissioner had nothing to do with his daughter's contract.

Right, nothing. Nothing at all.

But maybe this had something to do with it:

Michelle Santamaria, a former prosecutor in the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, said she came up with the idea to start a company, called Testifying Made Simple, while working as a prosecutor. She left the job after securing the contract with the sheriff's office.

Her experience with witnesses is typical of the new social media types who have found a way to convince others they are "experienced:"

"I loved being a prosecutor, but with the case load and the volume, I had very little time for family and friends," Santamaria said. "After about a year, I already let them know I was on the way out. I had had this seed planted from being a prosecutor."

Santamaria, 32, said she called Bradshaw's office and requested a meeting with him. She later presented Bradshaw with a business plan.

The Sheriff was concerned: "We had several comments from different prosecutors saying your deputies just aren't doing well in court. They just haven't had the training. They don't get it in the police academy."

In comes the county attorney with the clearance: In a letter to the county, C. Christopher Anderson, the commission's chief assistant general counsel, said the contract did not create a conflict of interest for the commissioner.

Yep. No conflict of interest paying a county commissioner's daughter taxpayer money to teach cops to testify.

Did you see the elephant walk out of the room while you were reading about the mice?

The classes apparently are a big, big hit:

Since signing the contract in December 2008, Michelle Santamaria has held 103 training classes for the sheriff's office. She was paid $550 for each four-hour class, according to her contract. She will teach a final session this month.

And that's the end of the story. Nothing even coming close to questioning this practice. Nothing from a defense lawyer about whether this is fair ground for cross examination.

"So, officer, can you tell us about your participation in "Testifying Made Simple?"

"Well yes counsel, I was student of the week 3 times." "In fact, you see me always looking at the judge and jury, and not at you when I testify? I learned that. Did you hear me chuckle a little when you asked me about your client's confession? That brings me closer to juror #3 who seems to like me and not you." Do I look threatening and agressive to you? That's because I have learned to be a bit more laid back. I also learned a new answer, it goes like this: "the answer is whatever is in the report." See that, I don't have to really answer your question or let the jury know the truth, that I really don't remember.

This is a disgrace. That the paper doesn't even lead the reader to the question of whether this is appropriate is pathetic.

The issue is not taxpayer money being paid to the daughter of a politician. Shame on you reporters.

The issue is the manipulation of our criminal justice system, with taxpayer money.

There is no training in the police academy regarding testifying because testifying IS simple - tell the truth.

Although there seems to be less and less of that, and thus, the need to teach sworn law enforcement how to testify is the result.

Very few reading that story picked up on the left-out angle of that story. I doubt there will be a follow up cry to the editor about anything, and if there is, it will be about the taxpayer dollars issue.

The truth seems to be lost, on everyone.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. To learn more about Brian and his firm, Tannebaum Weiss, please visit www.tannebaumweiss.com


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  1. Anonymous12:43 PM

    It seems like you're riled up primarily because this "manipulation" serves to make your job tougher, and secondarily because of the so-called misuse of taxpayer dollars.

  2. Well, there's one for things aren't always as they seem. You can take "manipulation" out of the quotes. It is, manipulation to teach witnesses "how" to testify. It demeans our system, and it doesn't make anyone's job tougher.

    As far as the wasted tax dollars. Most of our tax dollars are wasted. This is a drop in the bucket.

  3. Well, I'll step up and admit that I did something like this as a prosecutor.

    That is, I did classes for federal agents about how to be more effective on the stand. I didn't, for the record, teach about how to lie convincingly. I taught about how to avoid cop culture problems and bad habits that make some people come off badly on the stand. (Sneering, lingo, etc.) I gave much of the same advice that I now give to clients.

    I share your suspicion about this class, having been on the other side for a decade. But I'd want to see the course curriculum to make a real judgment about it.

  4. But wonderful fodder for cross examination in the right case.

  5. Anonymous10:45 PM

    I am a suburban police officer. I have had training in court testimony that goes beyond just, "tell the truth." Yes, telling the truth is an aspect of it, but there is far more. In an OVI (DUI, OMVI, pick your preferred acronym) enforcement course (APAP) we had a mock OVI trial where the instructor played the role of defense attorney. One thing I would emphasize to you is we were very clearly told to never lie. If you don't recall, then say you don't remember. The testimony training dealt primarily with typical ploys used by defense attorneys and the best way to present yourself and the events in court. For instance, if the prosecutor asks you a question, elaborate until the cows come home. If the defense attorney asks you a question, pause, take time to reflect carefully and make your (always truthful) answers as brief as possible and limited in scope. Things like that.

  6. Anonymous12:00 AM

    Correction, the OVI course is ADAP. Should have proofread more carefull.

  7. Officer,

    I don't believe these "courses," which go on all over the place, teach witnesses to lie. I do think they teach witnesses to tussle with lawyers, avoid difficult questions, manipulate the process.

    I think you said it best when you states that you learned: "....if the prosecutor asks you a question, elaborate until the cows come home. If the defense attorney asks you a question, pause, take time to reflect carefully."

    The job of witnesses is simple, tell the truth, not manipulate the process to the betterment of law enforcement.

  8. Anonymous10:51 AM

    So as a defense attorney you are telling me that you have never told your clients similar things?

    "Don't get angry with the prosecutor."
    "If you don't recall, say that -- don't make it up."
    "If you cannot answer a question with a simple yes indicate that."
    "Don't volunteer anything in answering questions -- just answer the specific question asked, nothing more."

    These are things ALL attorneys tell their clients/witnesses. These are all things that help ensure the truth comes out, and not some fabricated version of the truth.

    Now, if this class goes beyond that and into some of the things you've indicated concerns about, then it is inappropriate. Fake chuckles, deferring to "the report," etc., are all problematic behaviors because you are fabricating reality.

  9. Anonymous5:50 PM

    In my training I was nver told to chuckle or "refer to the report." I was told that it is acceptable to bring the actual report and your OVI/NHTSA training manuals with you with for reference to provide as accurate an answer as possible, with the understanding that those materials are subject to examination. I was told of the defense attorney tactic (perfectly acceptable legally) to ask no win, "are you still beating your wife?" type questions that can only be answered with a yes or no. In that case, you should answer the question, either affirmatively or not, but also elaborate to fully explain in cases where the simple yes or no would be misleading.

    For instance: "Isn't it a fact that you ignored other potential suspects before charging my innocent client?"

    An accurate answer could be a simple yes. Another accurate answer is yes, but your client was seen on the videotape, left fingerprints on the weapon, used the victim's credit card two hours later and a witness positively identified your client from a photo lineup." Both answers are truthful, but one tends to inclupate and the other to exculpate.

    The reason to pause and reflect carefully before answering is to prevent being led down a path of rapid fire, "yes or no" in one word as the only acceptable answer questions. There is nothing wrong with a defense attorney doing that. Were I charged with a crime I would certainly want my defense attorney to do that. But as an officer witness my task is to tell the truth and accurately present the facts of the case, including those facts the defense attorney doesn't want the jury or court to see. The job of the defense attorney is (hopefully) to win an acquital (or obtain a good plea bargain or dismissal), the truth be damned, especially if the client is factually guilty. I don't fault defense attorneys for that, it is just that as an arresting officer my task is to truthfully answer questions and get the full facts out there. Your job is to quite appropriately use the truth only so much as it serves to zealously represent your client and avoid it where it does not.