An opening statement may be the most critical aspect of a trial. It is the first time the opposing attorneys have the opportunity to explain to the jury what the case is about. Prior to opening statements a juror has been through events that often make them feel a bit uneasy.
Generally, a juror must arrive very early in the morning to sit around and wait. After an hour or two a group of potential jurors get shuffled into a courtroom; where they are questioned by both attorneys and oftentimes a judge. The questioning generally relates to their personal beliefs and biases and often lasts an entire day. It is then, if they are selected, that they are sworn in and ready to hear opening statements. It is the first time they hear about the case and get a framework for what is to be presented to them throughout the trial.
Opening statements are just that, statements. Sometimes people will hear an opening on TV and ask what the difference is between that and a closing argument. The difference is tremendous but this can be summarized as openings do not, or should not, contain any sort of argument. The purpose of an opening is to outline what each party expects to show in the form of testimony and other evidence throughout the trial. It’s design is to help the jurors understand the general story of what happened so when they hear from a certain witness they can have a point of reference in how it fits into the story, or theory of the plaintiff or defense.
Generally, opening statements should not go into great detail about the facts of the case. The best way to lose the jury’s attention is to throw too much information at them. Most trials require expert witnesses of some sort that must explain complicated and technical issues that could be about medicine, anatomy or even physics in the context of personal injury cases.
Attempting to tell the jury too much about what they will hear in regards to complex issues is a recipe for disaster. Some of the most comprehensive and interesting opening statements follow what some will call a story dialogue. Since all cases can be told in a story about what someone did or didn’t do, this lends itself to be told just like a story you would hear over the campfire. When done properly, it gives the jurors a pretty solid understanding about what is to come. More importantly, you can introduce characters into the story that will later serve as witnesses.
Attorneys often do not put the effort into openings that they so much deserve. This is baffling as this is the first opportunity to explain to the jury why you and your client have taken them away from their work, families and life. The courtroom has long served as the battle field of equality. Where else can a single person take on a multi-national corporation, be heard and get justice? Potential jurors should understand that although taking time out of your lives is difficult the court system is for everyone. Every case that goes to trial is to hold someone accountable in the community. Jurors are the voice of that community and can assure that someone’s careless actions will not go without consequence.