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Lawyers in murder case pause to consider interior decoration

Justice System

On the eve of a major Baltimore murder trial, the lawyers in the case took a break from battling over motions to consider instead the best place for everyone to sit.

The bones of contention: how close prosecutors should be allowed to sit to the jury, how much space defense attorneys should have for their files and whether it was OK to have a lawyer sitting behind the witness box.

It might seem more like a scene from the final preparations for a wedding reception — how best to arrange cantankerous uncles and divorced in-laws — but the attorneys in the case took the issue seriously. And with good reason, said Gil Amaral, a seasoned Baltimore defense lawyer, because the use of space in the courtroom has important symbolic and practical consequences.

"These are all subtle things that if you've tried enough jury trials you understand that juries pick up on certain nonverbal things," Amaral said.

The main problem the parties in the case had is that there are three defendants — each with his own lawyer — and two prosecutors all trying to find a spot at the trial table. The courtroom is among the larger ones in Baltimore's Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse, but the jury boxes on both sides limit the available space.

While prosecutors always sit next to the jury to symbolize their duty to prove the charges, Amaral said defense attorneys would not want them close enough that jurors would begin to identify with them or be able to read documents that are not admissible as evidence.

Likewise, the defense and prosecution need enough space so they cannot peer into one another's notebooks.

The defense lawyers also objected to having their clients sit on a bench behind them, an easy way to create space but one that lumps them all together despite the separate charges and evidence against each, according to Amaral.

Ultimately, the parties reached a solution before the trial began Thursday morning. As a compromise, the defendants will sit in chairs slightly behind their lawyers but still close enough to confer.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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