After the Webinar: Surviving a High Profile Case. Q&A with Michelle Welch

Webinar presenter Michelle Welch answered a number of your questions after her webinar, Surviving a High Profile Case: Living Under Scrutiny and Not Jeopardizing the Case. Here are just a few of her responses.

 

Audience Question: Do you know whether the State police investigated the incident where your window was broken?

Michelle Welch: The Richmond police did, and the State police were in contact with the Richmond police. We never figured out who did it. And you know you know that’s how most prime works right? But it did force me like I have cameras on every part of my house now. And I have a pit bull. So, there we go, and I love pit bulls for anybody who’s like, “Don’t say the pit bull,” but I will say that dog gives me, it doesn’t need to be a pit bull, it could be a big dog like a big lab who might love him to death but give them like at least a hesitation to mess with you.

 

Audience Question: What are some of the techniques that you’ve used not to show emotion during a trial when people are getting under your skin? How do you not show emotion? 

Michelle Welch: Well, I do a lot of breathing because they do. I mean, everyone’s human, and especially when especially when they’re lying. And there’s a lot of like just untruthful and aggressive behavior. And I mean, I’ve had cases where they just been so unethical that I’m like, I can’t believe you did that. So, I tried to just school my face, and there’s Posts-Its between me and my right-hand lawyers help a lot. My investors are really good at making me laugh. Obviously, she’s sequestered a lot. So, we don’t really get to talk until she’s done. But she’s again having someone that can kind of relieve that pressure. But you just you just got to stuff it. Now. I don’t know if that’s great for our long-term health. But you know you just got to like… what I say is I still get nervous sometimes, but when I stand up everyone falls away, and I just do the job. And that’s what you have to do, especially if they’re asking like… Let’s say they do a one-hour cross or a four-hour. So, one time I had a six-hour cross, and all they’re doing is retreading what you just did. Just sit there and say, “Okay, they’re reproving the case. That’s what they’re doing. Okay, they’re reminding them of everything I approved,” and just sort of let it fall off your shoulders. Like I said, I don’t know that I’m perfect but I’m telling you what you should do, maybe not what I’ve always done, but what I what I strive to do.

 

Audience Question: Any advice for expert witnesses or investigators testifying and things get hostile? They also added, this is my first time testifying and I would really welcome any advice. 

Michelle Welch: Okay, so, if they get hostile. So, it’s more like, I think it was Michelle Obama, “They go low, we go high.” You got to go high right? You have to be above it. You have to do whatever, because here’s the thing, if they go for your jugular, that’s going to send a message to the judge or the jury that they’re worried about whatever you’re testifying for. And so, if they’re really coming at you, they’re worried about you, and they’re worried about what you’re testifying to. So, if you can put that in your head and make sure that you don’t let it get to you. Calm, collected. Yes, ma’am, no ma’am. One of my favorite officers he kills them with “Yes, ma’am,” and “No ma’am,” “Oh, no, sir,” “Oh, no, ma’am.” He’s a sheriff’s deputy, and he just disarmed them because he is like me, a very nice person. The other thing. If you’re an expert witness, you make sure you reread your report. You bring your notes to the stand. Do not say don’t, don’t let them walk you down a primrose path. I had a vet just let him walk him down —— path, and I was like, “What are you doing? Why did you say yes, all of that? Did you really believe ‘yes,’ was right?” He goes. “Well, no.” And I was like, “Why did you say yes?” I was like, “Listen to what they’re asking you. And if it doesn’t call for a yes or no answer, then you say, ‘Well, that’s not a yes or no. In fact, this is my answer,” and say your answer, or just say your answer.” If they’re confused, ask the question, “I don’t understand your question.”  And if you’re in law enforcement, make sure you read your report before you get on that stand, and you can take your report to the stand. Because the commonwealth attorney or your State’s attorney, whatever your prosecutors call it in Virginia, we call them commonwealth attorneys, your DA. They will have already provided that to the defense. And so, you can take your report, and you can refresh your recollection. But you should know that report inside and outside. That’s the one frustration I’ve had with officers over the years like they don’t reread their report. And if you don’t care about this case, then how am I going to care about it? If you don’t care enough to actually prepare and prepare well. The other thing I do as a prosecutor is, I write out the questions and I have them give me their answers, and then I give that to them as a prep, and then they don’t bring that to the stand right, but they get to prep and remember what I’m going to ask them. And then I also on cross, I tell them what I think the cross-examination questions are going to be, and we’re pretty good at guessing what they’re going to be. You know the strengths and weaknesses of your case. And so, you can predict what they might go after, and you should predict it and be prepared with an answer to it.

 

Audience Question: You said you’ve had expert witnesses or investigators on the stand for 4 hours, 5 hours, 6 hours at a time. I mean that’s a lot of stamina. I mean, it’s a lot of focus. It’s a lot of composure. That’s exhausting. Is there a way to build your stamina to be able to sit on a stand and take those questions, and stay composed, and keep your head screwed on straight? Or is that just nothing more than practice?

Michelle Welch: I think veterinarians are really good at it for the most part. Because they’re used to people kind of questioning them like about their animals, right? And so, they have to explain it to people in layman’s terms. I’ve had people be on the stand for 8 to 10 hours, so the best experts have to just be polite and amiable and answer the questions. If you don’t, if you’re a veterinarian listening, you want to refer back to your notes. You’re not going to remember everything that you did for that animal. And I’ll tell you, a lot of times defense are picking out one little thing that they want to bring up. The best cross-examiners get to the point. You get up cross. If you’re a prosecutor listening. Cross shouldn’t take more than 10 to 15 min, and if it does, you aren’t doing it well. Now, I’m not talking about like, if you got 10 people dead, like not talking about the huge cases with, like the volume of victims. Right? But if you’re doing it well, you should get in, you should get out, and it should make the point that you’re trying to make. So, retreading what the expert has just testified to you is ineffectual. It doesn’t work, and all it does is put the jury or the judge to sleep. And so, getting up and getting in and out is what you should do. If you’re the expert or the law enforcement officer, you just sit there until it’s done. And remember what I said earlier. This too shall pass. This too will be over. And the best witnesses learn from what they have done wrong. And every single expert I ever put on the stand; I go “Where are your notes? What notes do you have there?” I usually always have notes that I just did this case, and I had no notes like that veterinarian like it was. “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” Like retained, not retained, but had his composure under lock and key, was very impartial, and that’s how you want to strive to be. I’m just doing my job. This is what I saw. This is what the defendant said. He said he killed the dog. He said he gave it to his girlfriend. He said the dog or the cat fell down the stairs. So, you want to appear and be impartial on that stand, and you will be effective.

 

Audience Question: Anne is sharing that her organization is a county shelter. We have an ongoing case in which we took 5 horses, a donkey, and 2 rabbits, and we found a dead cat. This has been going on for a year, and we’re just now getting ready to go to court. What is the best advice you could give us? One of our county board members is helping the person with this case and making our job more difficult. This is our first big case that might go to trial, and we have never had something go this far. Michelle, this kind of ties back to what you were talking about earlier, where sometimes people are politically connected. 

Michelle Welch: Well, first of all, I’m sorry I have shown up in court and I’ve had the elected prosecutor Commonwealth Attorney, and the Animal Control Officer on the other side, so I know exactly how you feel What I would say is, I’m sorry it’s been going on for a very long time. Once it is over, you need to do a debrief with your prosecutor about why it takes so long. Why did you have to hold the animals that long? I don’t know what state you’re calling from or what you’re talking about. But it is an injustice to the animals that it is taking that long. And what I try to do is I get the seizure done first, and then I do the criminal charges. If you want to contact me and ask me personally, I can give you, I think, better advice to understand the kind of disposition of where you are in the case, or the status of the case. But what I will say is, that justice is slow, and it takes a very long time. I had to prosecute someone who was a star in a Netflix series, and it took me. It was 4 years from the investigation to the end of the case. The case itself took 3 years. Now, some of that’s because of COVID. But when it is high profile, or when you have, politically connected, or people who have means, it is going to take a while, but even in other cases, it just takes up time. Every time I indict a case, the defense attorneys they will try to ding me on speedy trial down the road, but they all want to continue. They want to slow it down because they don’t know what’s going on, and they need to get the discovery, and they have to get up to speed. And so, what I do for them is to say, “Okay, I’m going to give you a couple of continuances,” and then we’re going to set it because this isn’t going to go on forever. But justice is slow, and defense attorneys always want continuances, in my opinion, and judges always want to give them those continuances. And so, I try to be reasonable, and I will often join in, but I always make them wait for a speedy trial. But the nature of the beast is to slow things down. I had a big cockfighting case, it’s a Federal, state, and local case. It was called Big Blue and it took us 5 years from beginning to end. Just the case in court took 3 years. The investigation took two. It is the nature of the beast. I don’t love that you’ve had to like be held hostage for the animals. So that seems to me that maybe you need to have a powwow. You know, prosecutors are busy. They’re very busy people. They have too many cases, just like law enforcement has too many cases. Probation officers have too many cases, and it just might be they don’t understand. There’s an animal behind it. And as far as someone helping them, I don’t really know what to do about that. I think I would have to know more of the specifics of that to be able to address it. But you know, just because of a board of supervisor, or a governor, or a delegate or senator… I’ll tell you. I had a case where I had delegates and senators writing letters to the Attorney General about how I was not. I shouldn’t be prosecuting this guy, but they didn’t know the case like I did. And so, they had to be educated about that. A lot of times, they’re educated when you’re in court, and the case comes out right because what we know is that most of the stuff in the press isn’t always right and they don’t… In my last case, I had like 10 reporters there, and after the fact, ——- “Man, were they not listening?” It’s just the nature of the beast.

 

Audience Question: When you’re on the stand for so long, would you look weak or look like a weak witness if you asked for a break? 

Michelle Welch: No, you will not. You’re human. The other thing I try to do, and I recommend all the prosecutors do is bring water for your witnesses. If you’re a witness, though, you bring water to the stand because it’s hard to talk for 8 hours without a break. You can ask for a break, and you should. And I’ll tell you I had a defense attorney give me a hard time because I needed a bathroom break, and I was like, “I need a bathroom break. I’m human.” You know what I mean, I had a judge one time who said, “I can go all day, Ms. Welch.” And I said, “I appreciate that Judge, but I need a bathroom break.”

 

Audience Question: So, have you seen cases where investigators or prosecutors have been stalked or doxed where, like their personal information has been dumped on the Internet? And I guess here’s the here’s the crux of the question. Are there things we can do in advance to protect our safety and security? 

Michelle Welch: I believe so. I will say that I think it was my last case. Somebody put my personal cell phone out there. And I was like, “I’m going to have to cell phone.” But I got to tell you no one has really messed with me, which I’m kind of shocked about. But I will. I mean, if people start bothering me, I will do that. I will tell you that I screen if you call me. You need to leave a message because I’m not calling you back. If I don’t know who you are, and I think that’s healthy. As far as if you’re a prosecutor, you should try to make sure you’re unlisted. But in this world, it is so easy for them to figure out where you are. And you know we just live in that age where everyone can do that. I’ve had a lot of people call me a lot of names and they keep trying to say that I’m in the back pocket of animal welfare they call them animal rights groups. But I’ll tell you I’m in a prosecutor for 23 years. It’s all I’ve ever done, and that’s all I ever do, my friends. So, you just have to ignore it. It’s hard, though I had an animal control officer who took something from her Facebook page. It was almost like a glamour shot, and she showed a little bit of cleavage, and they said she was a slut and a hooker. And it really devastated her, and it really made me mad. Because it just shows, like the depths that they will sink to when they don’t have a case, and they’re picking on her instead of picking on me. Just pick on me, everyone else does. So, you just have to get to the point where you’re like, “I’m going to live my life. I’m going to do my job and do it the best way I can, but you should take precautions as much as you can.”

 

Audience Question: So, you were talking about the hostile messages and such that you’ve received, and such. So, looking at that, and then kind of sharing advice, do you yourself triage those emails or those letters that are sent to you, and just say, “Oh, this person’s venting, or they’re just angry” versus, do you judge when it’s a real threat, or do you have somebody in your office that kind of screen those emails and letters and say, “Yep, send this to security.”

Michelle Welch: During my last case I was getting a lot of hate. And we have a constituent affair, and they were sending me, especially this one really crazy guy, and they wanted to know if I was going to respond. And I was like, “No.” I CCd my section chief, and he told them, “You send all of those to me from now on.” So, if you have a large office, that’s not my constituent affairs fault. We are very responsive to our constituents, she just didn’t know what to make of it.  You should have someone screen those. You don’t have to take that hate. My team and my investigators tend to get the most hate, and then my other two lawyers don’t. And so, if you’re a hater, don’t hate them other people either, so the other 2 will often like intervene. I get it from both sides. I now have another writing campaign where they’re telling me to do more for animals which I appreciate. But I’m doing a lot. So, I get that where you’re not doing enough. And then I got these behaviors are like, “You’re prosecuting good people,” and you know that sort of stuff. So, you get it from both sides, and you just have to, especially if it’s an orchestrated thing. I ignore it. Or I start sending it this time to my section chief. Because I was like, “You know what? I don’t need this, sort of like all the press.” Like I don’t look at it because it’s a distraction. And most of the time they may not even be getting it right, or they or they might be for your defendant if the defendant is well known in that community. Luckily for me, I can ride off into the sunset. You know what I mean? A lot of you have to stay in that community, and I totally get that. But you have to sort of like… A real threat is where they say they’re going to hurt me. And if they’re going to if they’re out there saying they’re going to hurt you. Like the podcast I talked about, they said, “Well, we need to go after her.” And there was a long, pregnant pause, and they said, “Legally, of course,” after the pregnant pause, and that went nationwide. And so, I had to go, “That’s a threat.” And for most prosecutors, especially law enforcement. You know it’s a threat when you read it. You’ve got to report it. And then you talk to your best friend who’s a prosecutor and go, “If anybody kills me, you make sure you bring them to justice. I want a lot of jail time.”

 

Audience Question: It seems like there is a lot of reaction to these cases these days. Why is this? Is it because the temperature just in the general public is hotter overall? Is it because we’re more aware of high-profile cases, thanks to social media and podcasts and the so in the 24 h news cycle? Do people just feel more empowered and emboldened to retaliate? Or is it? Is it all of the above? I mean, what has created this environment?

Michelle Welch: I think it’s all the above, and I and all those things whoever wrote that’s very beautifully written. All of those things are the problem. You know, I go to a lot of rural jurisdictions, and the murder rates in rural jurisdictions are off the chart. And during COVID, they were really off chart. And so, like places. You don’t think there would be four homicides in a year. We’re not talking, you know, Richmond, you know we’re not talking, you know. Fairfax, Washington, DC. Right? Like we’re not talking places where I like in Virginia that I would think would, you know, would have a high homicide rate. We’re talking about places that you ride through and think it was just a sleepy little town. I think some of that is a reaction to COVID. I can’t quantify that. Obviously, I think for me, no one is above the law, no matter how famous you are, no matter how rich you are, no matter who you think you are. In one case, in front of the judge, I said, “You know the law applies to the poor and to the rich.” I didn’t talk about the middle class, but it applies to us all, and I think some of that is, if they have means they really use those means in a way that they are abusive. And they want to win at all costs. Now, I didn’t say this in my presentation, but I meant to. I will not win at all costs. And if I lose, I lose. But what I want you all to remember, is whatever you’re doing, whether you’re a law enforcement officer, animal officer, a DA, a prosecutor, or anyone doing the law enforcement function. We are the good guys, we’re supposed to… And I told animal control officers, “Be the person I say, you are.” I will not win at every cost. I’m going to be ethical. I’m going to do my job, and I’m going to come every day. But the fight is what is worth it. I want to win, don’t get me wrong. I want to win, but if I cannot win, I need to be brave in the attempt. And if you think someone, if you’re a law enforcement officer and they are doing something illegal, and it rises to a crime, and you think you should charge them, that’s what you should do, and you should put your best foot forward every single day, and if you’re a prosecutor, you. You fight, we fight. So, I will just give you my parting thing. If you are a Game of Thrones fan. If you remember John Snow at the Battle of the Bastards, and Ramsey Bolton, of horses and soldiers come in down on him, and he unleashes this, if you can find it, but he unleashes his sword, and it’s just him against this like army. And he’s like “I fight, I fight.” That’s what you have to do, we have to fight, and we have to fight for justice. And if you’re doing your job right, you are fighting for justice. So that’s a little preaching. But there you go!

 

 

Click Here to Watch a Recording of Surviving a High Profile Case: Living Under Scrutiny and Not Jeopardizing the Case.

 

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