Profiles in Justice: A ‘one of a kind’ trial lawyer

An unattractive jury and a stirring tale of conflict, emotion, sex and violence are some of the essential ingredients for success in a trial, according to seasoned US trial lawyer Dick Harpootlian. He shares some tips with Reuben Guttman.

South Carolina has sandy beaches, Fort Sumter, where the shot that began the Civil War was fired, and the quaint port city of Charleston. Oh yes; it has one more thing: Dick Harpootlian. With an undergraduate degree from South Carolina’s Clemson University and a law degree from the University of South Carolina, the 64 year old trial lawyer has the trappings of a son of the south.

Yet, the truth is that Harpootlian is a minority in his own state; he is a socially liberal Democrat who has served off and on as Chairman of the State Democratic Party. As a student at Clemson University in the 1960s, he recruited Jane Fonda to speak after her visit to Vietnam. He also participated in Dr.Martin Luther King’s funeral procession in Atlanta in the summer of 1968.

After a stint as District Attorney for the state capital, Columbia, Harpootlian, who has been in private practice for the past 20 years, has become one of South Carolina’s most feared courtroom litigators and political strategists.

While Harpootlian is well known in South Carolina, it was Barack Obama who put him on the national map; some say the same could be said about Harpootlian helping put Obama where he is today. Back in early 2008, candidate Obama came into the South Carolina Primary needing to win after a loss to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. Harpootlian was essential in engineering Obama’s primary win that paved the way to a Democratic Party nomination.

Authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in their book Game Change, the story of Obama’s 2008 election victory, describe Harpootlian as “a media magnet, glib and hard edged, a perfect combination of down home grit and steely sophistication.”

With his post 2008 election national prominence, Harpootlian has been a regular commentator on Fox news and has made at least one appearance on the Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert is a South Carolina buddy. His appearances have been provocative and entertaining.

An hour with Harpootlian is a day of anecdotes, analogies, and humor. A walk across the Mall in Washington surrounded by massive buildings housing government agencies with Harpootlian prompts a running monologue about government waste and inefficiency.

Visit him in Columbia, South Carolina, where an antebellum mansion is his office, and you are greeted by a brass sculpture of three large monkeys – “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil” – on a metal bench. “My wife wouldn’t let me bring them home,” says Harpootlian.

As a private practitioner Harpootlian has represented a cross section of South Carolina’s population taking on civil rights cases, death penalty defense cases, and some of the largest banks in the nation.

Among the many cases that Harpootlian has tried is the successful prosecution of “Pee Wee” Gaskins – the most notorious serial killer in South Carolina history. It took weeks for Harpootlian, District Attorney for Columbia at the time, to pick a jury because of Gaskins’ notoriety.

As for his tips on courtroom practice, Harpootlian shared the following in his own — at times provocative — words:

Tip #1: Pick a jury not based only on your client’s profile, but also yours. If the jury hates you they usually won’t like your client. This has caused me to gravitate towards unattractive people on juries. They don’t feel threatened by me and aren’t disdainful like attractive people.

Tip #2: Never suffer a misstatement of the facts by opposing counsel in opening statement. Since his or her back is towards you during this process, I call it the “kidney punch” objection. Most attorneys have a difficult time recovering from the objection, especially if it happens more than once. If they have a prepared opening they never seem to get back to it. Don’t let them frame the case based on lies.

Tip #3: Prior to trial I almost always only depose experts to get their opinion and the materials they used to formulate the opinion. In most of my cases, expert depositions take less than five minutes. Why educate them before trial? Save the good stuff for the jury.

Tip #4: Own the courtroom. One of my frequent opponents when I was the DA paid me the most eloquent compliment. She said, “Harpootlian is like a dog marking his territory in the courtroom. He pisses in every corner and invades your space as frequently as he can. It makes the opposing attorney anxious.” Anxiety is your friend.

Tip #5: Throw away the script. There is nothing more boring nor unproductive than to follow a script checking off the points you want to make to prove the elements of your case. The jury wants a narrative, a story; an entertaining yarn full of conflict, emotion, sex, violence, yelling weeping, etc. . . . you get the idea. That means you have to have a general idea of what you want but let the examination flow naturally. Set the witness up to confirm fact A and fact C then box them in to B. The jury will understand where you are going. Remember these are unattractive people who watch a lot of TV and read most of their evenings. They have lots of imagination.