DEPTH PERCEPTION: Jury consultant sees trial life in a far different light

Jurors often choose which team they want to be on based on their perception of the attorney involved in the case.

Simple as that.

Such is the view of Stephen Hnat, a renowned jury selection and trial strategy consultant based in Southfield.

And such fundamental feelings by jurors can be easily overlooked by attorneys during the selection process of voir dire, when trials are often won or lost, according to Hnat, who performed his doctoral studies in psychology and social work at the University of Michigan.

His passion for research would eventually lead to the legal arena where Hnat regularly assists attorneys with the development of opening/closing argument themes, jury questionnaires and voir dire queries, as well as witness interviews and testimony preparation. In short, Hnat is their constant courtroom companion once he is invited to lend his strategic expertise.

Hnats legal observations have been gleaned from his work at hundreds of civil and criminal trials over the past 17 years, during which time he has become a master at seeing cases through the eyes of jurors. Its a talent he has developed while assisting some of the finest trial attorneys in Michigan as they have won a series of eye-popping verdicts, including some far north of the $25 million line.

He has worked side-by-side with attorney Geoffrey Fieger, advising him in various high profile cases, including the successful defense of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the $25 million verdict against Warner Brothers in the celebrated Jenny Jones trial.

As a consultant to Macomb County attorney James McKenna, Hnat was in a Salt Lake City federal courtroom a decade ago when a jury returned a $3 million verdict in favor of a Park City couple who sued Kmart after their mentally ill son committed suicide 5 years earlier. The jury found that Kmart was negligent in selling a shotgun to the 19-year-old man who was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.

In May, Hnat was part of the legal team that won a $12.5 million verdict against a Detroit area ambulance company and its attendant who sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl repeatedly during a 50-minute ride in the summer of 2006. The seven-member jury in Wayne County reportedly deliberated less than four hours before reaching its verdict, a judgment that Hnat predicted to the near dollar amount just days earlier.

Several weeks earlier, Hnat helped conduct a mock trial of the Wayne County case, offering a so-called preview of coming legal attractions and an opportunity to determine how jurors would react and respond to various courtroom strategies. Such mock presentations can be costly, ranging anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, but the benefits can be invaluable, says Hnat, who is associated with American Settlement Centers in Farmington Hills.

It can offer a blueprint for pinpointing the most persuasive arguments and legal strategies, Hnat says of the mock trial process. It can serve as a very effective tool in determining the demographic comparisons between the best and worst jurors. Mock trials also give you a sense of what works and what doesnt. For instance, in the Jenny Jones case we were 0-4 in mock trials, but we learned a lot from the experience and it paid off at the real trial.

Jury trials, says Hnat, are less a legal process than they are a social process, and juror perceptions of an attorney are just as subjective in the courtroom as they are in any other social setting. Consequently, attorneys can set the proper tone for the trial during voir dire, which Hnat says is the most important stage of establishing credibility with the jury pool.

First impressions are often controlling in any social interaction, not because they are accurate, but because they shape the interpretation of subsequent interactions, he says.

Hnat, a graduate of Cass Tech High School in Detroit, knows all about first impressions and he readily admits that those he held early in life were seldom favorable. His father deserted his family when Hnat was just 3 years old, forcing his mother to do whatever it took in terms of odd jobs to stay afloat.

We moved around a lot when I was growing up, Hnat says of his mother and his two siblings. Somehow she was able to keep us going as a family, even when it looked particularly bleak. We lived in some very tough neighborhoods. I would stay after school as long as I could to avoid getting beaten up on my way home. It wasnt exactly an ideal type of childhood.

But it may have given Hnat a sixth sense about individual behavior, a skill he developed in the Marines after high school and then further honed while earning his bachelors degree in psychology and statistical analysis from the U-M in 1979.

He worked as an out-patient therapist at Henry Ford Hospital, becoming director of its Out-patient Treatment Programs in 1985 and then head of its Substance Abuse Research Programs. While at Henry Fords Maplegrove unit, Hnat served as the team therapist for the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions, aiding the Tigers during their World Series championship season in 1984.

It would be work he continued as a consultant to the University of Michigan Athletic Department in the late 80s. He was recognized with the Governors Award for the Most Innovative Workplace Substance Abuse Prevention Program in 1991 and later assisted in developing the national Cholesterol Watch program which partnered manufacturers, retailers, and health care institutions to sponsor the largest public health screening in U.S. history, according to Hnat.

But it is his role as a jury consultant and trial strategist that whets his career appetite now.

In oversimplified terms, an attorney can be either the good parent or the bad parent not many jurors choose to side with the bad parent, Hnat says. This largely unconscious process can mean the difference between a juror forming the impression that you are credible or contrived. This is not an arbitrary or immutable process, and it is not always a matter of damage that cant be undone during a trial.

Hnat, who says that the most effective tool for a trial attorney is introspection, advises lawyers to react and respond spontaneously to responses from jurors. It is among his fundamental truths during the voir dire process and helps humanize the attorney with the jury pool.

For example, in a recent trial an attorney . . . was conducting voir dire when a prospective juror announced that she could not be fair to the plaintiff, Hnat relates. When asked why, she gave the following response: I think your firm and everyone in it are morally repugnant. The entire courtroom fell deadly silent, but instead of responding defensively, he said, But could you tell me how you really feel? He reinforced her honesty as brutal as it was without reacting to her response in a way that might shut down other equally honest but adverse responses.

The woman, not surprisingly, was excused from jury duty. The next juror in line was then asked, Do you or anyone you know hate my firm as much as the last lady? She laughed and was noticeably relaxed throughout the remainder of the questioning, according to Hnat.

For Hnat and the attorney, it was a powerful lesson in maintaining composure and control.

Every trial is a social process involving powerful emotions: someone is wronged . . . trust is betrayed . . . lives will be affected, Hnat says. An emotionally astute attorney is at a tremendous advantage throughout trial once they have established credibility. Voir dire is the best opportunity to establish that credibility and control how those emotions shape the understanding of evidence you will present to the jury.

By Tom Kirvan

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