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Law Storytelling

Lawyers Persuading with Effective Word Pictures (and What You Can Learn)

If I was accused of murder I would hate to see Michael Bowman SC prosecuting me. Although if I had Bernard Condon SC defending my chances of acquittal would be greatly enhanced.

My attention has been arrested by the word pictures these two men have been painting for the jury this week in the Patrick Quirke murder trial-that is, the trial involving a so called ‘love triangle’ in Tipperary involving Patrick Quirke, Bobby Ryan, and Mary Lowry.

Leaving aside a close examination of the evidence what I have found fascinating and educational is the ability of these two senior counsels to communicate with the jury in a way that is easily understood.

By painting word pictures.

Let me explain.

Circumstantial evidence

Much, or all, of the evidence against Patrick Quirke is circumstantial.

Anyone who has watched a tv programme involving law/crime knows that circumstantial evidence is not the best evidence you can have. In fact, it can be hugely problematic.

You may have heard the phrase that the evidence was ‘only circumstantial evidence’ and therefore a conviction could not be safely arrived at.

Michael Bowman SC appeared, to this lay observer’s eye, to address this problem when addressing the jury this week. He met the problem head on and dealt with it up front by telling the jury “The human condition can only tolerate so much coincidence before we shake our head and say that is not coincidence – that is planned”.

In other words, he seemed to feel their pain but gave them a perfectly reasonable out: a reason for conviction. He told them it wasn’t their fault, that the human condition could only accept so much as coincidence.

In fact, he planted the image, in my mind anyway, of someone shaking their head and saying ‘enough is enough, this evidence might be circumstantial but this cannot just be explained as a coincidence’.

He then went further and addressed what they the jury had seen during the course of the trial: Patrick Quirke, the accused, appearing as a loving husband and father.

And even then, using their critical faculties, they would be justified in bringing in a guilty verdict.

Mr. Bowman then painted the picture of the victim, Bobby Ryan, as a man “living a quiet and peaceful and content life in a small village, a man who lived his job, a man who loved music, a man who loved to dance, who loved his girlfriend and who very dearly loved his two children.”

He said “Who would want to take the life of such a man? To strip him naked of his worldly possessions and his dignity and leave his body to decompose in a sealed chamber on a farm in Fawnagowan?”

The defence and the train

Then later Mr. Bernard Condon SC for the defence addressed the jury. He, too, painted vivid word pictures for the jury. He told them about a train and train stations. Everyone understands what a train is; nobody will be left behind by being asked to imagine a train station.

But first, he told the jury that much was being made of circumstantial evidence, but he warned that “circumstantial evidence is not a shortcut to convict”.

And then he turned to the train images. He told the jury that when they looked at the evidence, they were taking a journey in the “forensic equivalent to a train”.

He said, “You are being invited by the prosecution to go to the last station on the line, it will be uphill and will twist and curve”. And he said the prosecution should be able to bring them to the very last station on the journey with evidence as the fuel.

“If it isn’t the sort of evidence that you yourself would be happy to be convicted on, if it is not grade-A fuel, you will not get to the station at the top marked guilty,” he said.

Mr Condon said Mr Quirke was “parked in the train station marked innocence” and it was up to the prosecution to move him out of it and they had to do that with evidence.

But he said there was a problem here because “the evidence is thin”. He said, “You will have to pass through several stops, you may go past suspicion station, likelihood station and even probability station, but if you get out there you are in the wrong place for conviction”.

Word pictures and persuasion

I don’t know what the jury will do and, quite frankly, I don’t envy their task.

But the value of images and story in the science and art of persuasion has again been brought forcefully home to me by the powerful use of words and images of these two lawyers at the peak of their powers.

I have written many times before about the value of story:

We can all learn from what these two lawyers are doing, no matter who we seek to persuade or influence.

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