In the interest of full disclosure, due to unusual circumstances, I know three of the key parties involved. First, Prosecutor Prokopowitz was the Chief Deputy of Dakota County when I was a prosecutor there. Second, I worked with Fitch’s Defense Attorney, Lauri Traub, in Carver County when I was a prosecutor the County’s Juvenile Division and have maintained a friendship since. Finally and most personal, I have a close connection to the Officer Scott Patrick family. My godson is dating one of Officer Patrick’s daughters. So, I have the unique perspective of looking at the case, and more specifically the closing arguments, from three distinctly different viewpoints.
After the jury filed in, Phil Prokopowitz brought his three ring binder up to the podium and began the closing argument to this highly publicized trial. As he intently gripped the podium, he began by thanking the jury. Prosecutors do that. I did that as a prosecutor too. Why? Because, we really mean it. You have to sit there and listen to us. We know that we talk a lot and our materials can be incredibly technical and probably downright boring, but there is so much information that we believe you NEED to know in order to make an informed decision on someone’s life. So…Thank You. He went on to explain the concept of “reasonable doubt” and the various types of evidence, using examples I still remember from my time in the prosecutor’s office.
Phil hit the highlights of his case using Powerpoint images to make his accentuate points. He admitted that the eyewitness identification of the driver and shooter were not clear. In fact, they were inconsistent and wrong. He explained that the sightings of the shooter were fleeting, but that it was understandable and explainable. His strategy was to explain the inconsistencies in his case and hit them head on. With a soft methodical voice, he went through the case piece by piece to make sure all the elements of the crimes were met. Near the end of his 90 minute argument, he walked over to the evidence table, picked up the gun, held it in the air and told the jury “This was the murder weapon”. Most of the jurors were very attentive.
There was a small break and then the defense began.
Lauri’s closing started off with a bang…literally. Audio from the shootout in St. Paul rang throughout the courtroom as she walked up to the podium. Her closing had a very different tone than Phil’s. I know from firsthand making a closing argument in a murder trial can be nerve-wracking. If she was nervous, it didn’t really show. Her manner was more relaxed and conversational than Phil’s. She spoke of the logic of the case and how many pieces didn’t make sense. She spoke of many facts that would need to be ignored in order for other facts to make sense in the case. What struck me most was how she explained reasonable doubt. Her analogy was that while buying a house and getting married are big decisions and important, you can, although with difficulty, reverse those decisions. Convicting someone of murder is irrevocable.
Among other things, Lauri spoke of the science of the firearms expert and how he came to the conclusion that the bullets he found at the scenes in West St. Paul and in St. Paul were the same. She spoke of the lack of certainty the expert had on the stand. When it comes to science, Lauri knows what she is taking about - she is one of the attorneys who brought down the Minnesota Crime Lab due to their methods.
The prosecutor has a chance for rebuttal. This is given to him by law. He has the burden of proof, so it is only fair. While Phil was speaking about Fitch trying to take down as many cops as he can, Fitch yelled “Overruled!” I believe it was because the trial was so intense and he reacted, but who knows whether he was just yelling because he disagreed with what he heard or if it was due to something else. Some found it startling, and I saw several courtroom officers move toward him.
When the prosecution finished, the case had been argued. Jury deliberation took several hours, with the jury asking to see the gun. In the end, late in the night, the guilty verdicts were delivered.
I spoke with members of the Patrick family and they stated that the case was fairly presented on both sides. Even before a verdict was rendered they agreed that both sides got their day in court and all was fair. They agreed they were fairly represented and that Fitch was well represented. I agree. They were glad he was well represented. They handled the situation with grace and dignity.
One family member asked me how I could do my job as a defense attorney. It is a valid question. I told them live in a country where we don’t just execute people when they are accused of a crime. We give them the opportunity to defend themselves. I am proud to be part of that process. I make sure that people are not railroaded and are given the chance to have representation in a system that can sometimes be unfair. My job is to make sure that everyone has a fair chance in court.