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The Trial Experience

JD University of Oregon School of Law

Good trials and great literature share many common qualities. Though long and often tedious, the process of reading a novel or judging a case requires the evaluation of numerous contributing chapters and pieces of evidence. A few months ago, I observed a trial conducted by the Oregon Department of Justice’s Medicare section. It was an exciting opportunity and I gratefully absorbed the entire process. Beginning with the opening statements and proceeding through the crescendo and impact of the defendant’s testimony, the experience was unforgettable.

The courtroom setting was modest. It was a large and open chamber dominated by a long row of seven elevated seats. A witness box and several tables stood in the center. The wood was well-varnished and had a warm golden hue. Several portraits of past judges hung along the wall directly behind the jurors. In the air, the scent of timber mixed with the musty aroma of dry paper and boxes of evidence.

As it turns out, the defendants in the case were cousins. Joseph, the youngest cousin, lived with a genetic condition affecting his pituitary gland. The extremely rare disease can cause a person’s vision to deteriorate and produce severe headaches and joint pain. The other cousin, Paul, worked as a caretaker for Joseph. We were told people with the disorder frequently qualify for government assistance. The question before the jury was not whether the defendants qualified for assistance, but whether they conspired to exaggerate symptoms in order to receive more assistance than they deserved.

The attorneys introduced many types of evidence. Prosecutors showed video of the cousins repairing cars, as well as footage showing the men carrying groceries and other heavy packages. Another effective tool used by prosecutors was the defendant’s testimony. The disabled defendant claimed he needed money to pay an assistant to brush his teeth in the morning. He claimed, for example, to require assistance squeezing his toothpaste. In its closing argument, the prosecution repeated this testimony verbatim and contrasted it with the image of the defendant carrying large cartons with ease. I found it to be a compelling point in the prosecution’s favor. The jury deliberated for three hours and found the defendants guilty on all counts.

A criminal trial and verdict are never without winners and losers. The defense attorney presented a solid case, but lost. The family struggled with the verdict. The prosecutors, on the other hand, did their job on behalf of the state and on behalf of all Medicare beneficiaries unable to receive aid because of fraud and exaggerated illness. The trial was a tremendous credit to the justice system and to the public servants who do such work in our community.

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