Welcome to Trial Lawyer Talk. In this episode, we talk with San Diego trial lawyer Mike Marrinan. Mike is a phenomenal civil rights lawyer who focuses on police abuse cases. Mike gives his insight on police abuse cases and shares with us the story of an interesting civil rights trial.
Transcript for Trial Lawyer Talk, Episode 3, with Mike Marrinan
Scott Glovsky: Welcome to trial lawyer talk. I’m Scott Glovsky and I’m your host for this podcast. We’re going to talk to some of the best trial lawyers in United States. We’re going to talk to civil lawyers, criminal lawyer, jury consultants, and others that I think will have some interesting stories, that are both entertaining and insightful.
My goal here, is to give you a view inside the hearts, and the minds, and the souls of great trial lawyers. We’re not going to talk about the law, but I guarantee you that you’ll learn a lot about trial from the stories you’re going to hear from our great guests. So I hope you enjoy the podcast, let’s get started.
Welcome to trial lawyer talk. This is the podcast, where we look into the hearts, and the minds, and the souls of fabulous trial lawyers. Were very, very fortunate today to have with us a phenomenal trial lawyer, Mike Marrinan. Mike is a lawyer in San Diego, who started out as a public defender, and has been doing civil rights cases for the past couple of decades.
Mike does all kinds of police abuse cases, including excessive force cases, wrongful death cases, First Amendment cases. Mike has been honored as trial lawyer of the year in San Diego. Several times has been awarded as an outstanding trial lawyer in San Diego.
Now, I’m very lucky, and actually very fortunate to have Mike with us today. Because Mike is not only one of the best trial lawyers, but also one of the greatest people that I know. I’ve had the great pleasure of watching Mike two weeks ago, pick a jury in a civil rights case down in San Diego.
Mike has more caring, credibility, and compassion than any lawyer I’ve seen. It was truly a pleasure to watch him in the beginning of that case, which resulted in a wonderful verdict, in a very difficult case. Mike also is a mentor to many lawyers in San Diego and around the country. I’m very pleased that Mike is one of my mentors. Mike, first, thank you for being here today.
Mike Marrinan: Well, I’m pleased to be here.
Scott Glovsky: Mike, could you tell us about a case that had a profound effect on you, either professionally or personally?
Mike Marrinan: Well, whenever I’m asked that question, I think about the first police abuse trial that I did. I remember the client very, very well, his name was Nacho. This goes back now to probably 1987, or ’88, somewhere in that time frame, when I first started doing police cases. That’s the one that comes to mind. I’d be happy to tell you about it if you’d like.
Scott Glovsky: Please.
Mike Marrinan: Nacho first came to me because he was charged with a crime. He was charged with resisting arrest. I defended him, with the idea that if we were successful in the criminal case, we would maybe have a civil case. Because in my view, Nacho was really wronged by an El Cajon police officer, who roughed him up.
Nacho had some injuries from that event. One of them I remember was, he had permanent nerve damage in his hand. Because during this use of force, the officer had put the handcuffs on so tight that it essentially severed a nerve in Nacho’s wrist. One of the things that I remember best about the case is, when we were in criminal court, I was trying to get the DA to dismiss the case.
I was real close to having the DA dismiss it, because it became clear that Nacho was a good guy. He referred to himself… He had a heavy accent, his first language was Spanish. He spoke fluent English, but he always would say, “I am a family man. I am a family man.” Which was what he was trying to tell the officer, when the officer was beating him up.
I think the DA’s office eventually figured out that he was a pretty good person. The night of the incident, he was actually at 7-11 buying diapers for his baby, as 2:00 am they needed more diapers. So Nacho went out to get them. The police officer pulled in behind him because his registration was expired. Then they had this contact that I’ll tell you about in just a second.
But going back to the criminal court, I remember being in the judge’s chambers, with Judge Riggs, who was a good person, and a good friend. The DA said, well…. First they said, “why don’t you plead guilty for disturbing the peace, instead of resisting arrest?”, and we said no.
Then they went upstairs to talk to the boss, then they came down and said, “well how about we do a disturbing the peace as an infraction, and he doesn’t even have to pay a fine?”, and we said no, because Nacho hadn’t done anything.
I remember Judge Riggs saying, “Mike, what’s the big problem here? What are you going to do sue him or something?” The DA hadn’t thought of that, and so I had to be honest with her, and I said, “Yeah, I’m going to sue him. Don’t you think that I should?” So the DA’s office wouldn’t dismiss the case once that cat was out of the bag.
So we went to trial in the criminal court, and Nacho was found not guilty. Then we filed the civil case, and eventually that went to trial. I’ll tell you briefly what happened to him. If that works.
Scott Glovsky: Please.
Mike Marrinan: He was in a van, and underneath the van was an 8-track tape player, underneath the front seat. So if Nacho turned on or off his tape player, he had to reach under the seat. So this officer pulls him over, and he’s in the parking lot of the 7-11. Nacho gets out of the van and reaches under the seat. Now the officer freaks out, and I still remember the officer’s name. His name was, Bruno. I don’t remember his last name, but I remember his first name, because I thought it was apropos.
Bruno comes running up to Nacho, grabs him and slams him down on the seat of his car, and puts his gun to Nacho’s neck. Nacho was yelling at him, “I have done nothing. I’ve done nothing. I’m a family man.” The cop didn’t care. So the cop’s got his gun to Nacho’s neck and it left a big scratch on his neck.
That’s how we were able to prove that the cop really had his gun on his neck. Because the cop denied all this. He just said, “I went up to handcuff him and he resisted arrest.
But in any event, he pulls him out of the car, slams him down on the ground, handcuffs him. He’s got his knee in his back, and then he clamps the handcuffs down so tight that they sever the nerve in Nacho’s wrist. Then he gets roughed again, I don’t remember exactly, but I remember he had bumps and bruises.
He had really not done anything other than, he reached under the seat to turn off his tape player. Bruno freaked out, oh no, he’s going for a gun or something. So of course, since he got beat up, the cop arrests him for resisting arrest, nothing else. Then we had to go to trial in criminal court, worked up the civil case, and finally we got it to trial in the federal court.
I remember that the lawyer on the other side, was a fellow, well-known insurance defense lawyer, very slick, and very experienced, much more than me. He had been a police officer one time in his life, and that’s why he got these cases, where the cops were being sued.
I kind of remember him talking to me like I didn’t know what I was doing, and why would I take some little nickel and dime case like this. Having associates filing a lot of paper, things that I would have to respond to, and a lot of motions, just to make me work and for him to bill. I remember feeling like I was getting pushed around by this guy.
Scott Glovsky: How did that feel?
Mike Marrinan: Well, I didn’t like it. Later, we actually got pretty friendly after the trial was over. But that’s the kind of thing that makes me mad. The other thing I think motivated me in that case was Nacho and his little family. I spent a fair amount of time at Nacho’s house. I met his wife, who was just a lovely, lovely woman. Nacho painted houses for a living, and they just got by.
They had two or three kids, one of whom was autistic. I remember being in their home, and it was just a little apartment. This kid was a handful. He was just always in action, and bouncing off the walls, and a very, very difficult child to raise. I watched Nacho and his wife care for him with such love.
It really had an impact on me, and it’s kind of the part of what made me want to help them. Because this case and this injury really set them back. Because Nacho couldn’t work for a while, he painted for a living, and he couldn’t use his right hand for a period of time. That’s another part of that case, I remember. I can still picture his wife and their autistic child, I think he was probably five or six at the time.
Anyway, of course the city wouldn’t offer any money to settle the case. Because the figured two things: one is, the cop said he didn’t do anything wrong, and Nacho resisted arrest, which is what they always say. I know the lawyer didn’t think any jury would ever give Nacho any money, because who would believe him over a cop.
So we went to trial, and the cop testified, and Nacho got up and told his story. He wasn’t sophisticated, and he wasn’t educated, but everybody in the room knew they were listening to a decent man, who had a family to raise and was a truth teller. Eventually, the jury went out to deliberate. I remember as we waited for the verdict, the court called us and said we have a verdict.
So we went back into the courtroom to get the verdict. The defense lawyer was there, and he brought three or four people from his office to watch the verdict, a couple of law clerks, an associate, and his secretary. The idea was, he knew he was going to win, and he wanted all these people to be there, to see him win. I don’t know if I knew that at the time, but I’ve learned later that’s why they were all there.
So anyway, the jury found in our favor. They said, Nacho had been a victim of a false arrest and excessive force. I remember they awarded him $40,000, which at the time, I thought was like a million to Nacho and to me. What was important was that we won, and that Nacho was believed. To them, $40,000 was enough to take care of him for a period of time.
To this day, I’ve now been doing these police cases for over 25 years. I’ve had a lot of trials. I’ve had some cases, I suppose, that were bigger cases. But I’d say that the one that means the most to me is that first one with Nacho. And that’s my story.
Scott Glovsky: Mike, there’s a lot of people in our community, and all over across the country that want to believe that a policeman would not lie. That policemen are there to protect us. And would have resistance in any type of a police abuse case, to finding that the policemen were lying and abuse somebody. What should the public know? What do you think the public misperceives?
Mike Marrinan: Well, I think in recent years, with the beginning of cable TV, and video all over the place, more and more people are at least exposed to one or more incidents of police abuse. They’ve seen it on TV at least. Back in those days, I would ask a jury, “Has anybody ever heard of an incident where a police officer lied or used excessive force?” To a person, the answer would be no, never even heard of one.
But nowadays, most people at least… It’s changed some. But most people want to believe the police, they think that police officers tell the truth. They want to believe that they are the good guys, in many cases, that’s true. But most of us have been brought to believe that.
What people don’t realize is, there is a culture within police agencies, and it’s throughout the country, and throughout police agencies. The culture is… we call it the code of silence. The culture is, you will never rat out a fellow officer, no matter what he’s done. No matter how much lying he does, you will never cross that line and rat out one of your fellow officers.
So even honest good cops know that if they blow the whistle on one of their colleagues, they’re going to have to leave the police department. Because they’ll never be backed up by their colleagues. They’ll be literally run out of the job by their colleagues. It’s created a culture in policing that when they screw up, they often times make up charges. If you have to lie, in their minds, I think the ends justifies the means.
Scott Glovsky: Mike, can I ask you about the case you worked on down in San Diego for some veterans that resulted in a very, very large monetary award. I know you received awards for it. But can I ask you about that case?
Mike Marrinan: Yeah, actually that was a case much like Nacho’s. It was not a big injury case. My colleagues Joe McMullen, Tom Robertson, and I took that case. The reason we did is, there were twin brothers, who were again roughed up by the police down in what we call the Gas Lamp District in San Diego.
They joined the Marine Corp as a result of 9/11. They were in high school at the time, and 9/11 happened. They made a pact that they would join the Marine Corp to defend their country, and they did. I think they got out of high school two years later.
So fast forward to this incident in San Diego. They’re walking down the street, in the Gas Lamp, with a friend of theirs and one of the fellow’s wife. They get into an argument with a guy who’s drunk. The drunk guy punches one of them in the face, and the police show up.
The police think that the two Marine’s, my two clients, had been in a fight. They didn’t realize that they were the victims of some drunk. So they come running up, there’s a crowd of people around. They slam them both down on the ground.
The one fellow, who had brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, gets his head smashed on the payment for no reason. The other guy gets a concussion and a cut lip, this is the friend. Both of the Marines and the friend get arrested, the wife gets taken to the drunk tank, and they all get accused of being drunk and disorderly, and resisting arrest. Well they hadn’t done anything.
They didn’t have big injuries, but what struck me about them was, they had risked their lives for our country. They had been right in the thick of it in Iraq and Afghanistan. The one fellow had been injured twice by IED’s exploding near him, that’s how he got his brain injuries.
I felt like if anybody deserves to be able to walk down the streets of San Diego, or any other city, without being hassled and hurt by government agents, it’s these fellows and their friends. So we took that case because of that. Really it was a question about who do you believe. The police had a completely different story than our clients.
We believed the police were lying, and we put it right to the jury. We said, “Ladies and gentlemen, somebody’s lying here. If you think our clients are lying, then I want you to vote against this, and we’ll pack up and go home. Because if our clients are lying then this whole case is a fraud”, and that’s what I said to the jury.
I said, “on the other hand, if you believe the police have lied. We’re hoping you have the courage to stand up in court and say so.”, and so that’s how we got the verdict. These courageous jurors. Jurors in police cases need courage. They had the courage to stand up in court and say, “we believe these officers lied.”
Scott Glovsky: What did the officers say on the stand?
Mike Marrinan: Well, they said, that two of our guy had attacked them. When they came up to break the fight, one of the Marines ran at the cop and tried to knock him down. Then their friend, who was African American and had dreadlocks, they claimed that he had tried to attack the other cop. That he had, for no reason, run right at him, and tried to punch him and knock him down.
Our client said, no, we just got punched by this guy. The cops come running up. They think we were involved in this fight, and they slam us down on the ground. We didn’t have any independent witnesses, because all of our people went to jail. While there were people who saw this happen, nobody got any names. The police didn’t try to get their names. It was really a who do you believe.
Scott Glovsky: So how does that feel when you’re in trial and police officers are testifying on the stand, and obviously orchestrated story, that they coordinated together. Because of course, they’re testifying separately. You’re sitting there listening to this. How does that feel?
Mike Marrinan: It makes me angry, on the one hand, and on the other hand, it makes me sad. Because when they lie it makes me sad that they would do that, for what? I think a lot of times they don’t realize how much impact they have on people’s lives when they’ve harmed them.
They think taking somebody to jail is just no big deal, who cares. When you take an innocent person to jail, you’re taking away, from that person, the thing we value most in this country, their freedom, and that’s a big deal. I think a lot of times the police, they don’t think it’s a big deal.
It also makes me mad that they think they can come into court and lie, and get away with it. What it tells me is that too often they do. Because I think they get in the habit of either writing false police reports, testifying in a manner that’s not truthful, and they get away with it. Then it keeps perpetuating itself.
It’s also scary because in every case, I worry, why are they going to believe my little client over a cop. Most of my little clients are poor. They tend to pick on poor people more than others. Most of them aren’t necessarily all that sophisticated. Then you have cops come in with uniforms, and they get training on how to testify.
There’s a bias in favor of them. Most people want to believe them. I certainly understand that. I mean, I am the same way. I want to believe them. Those are some of the feelings that go through you when you’re in one of these cases.
Scott Glovsky: So how did you approach or handle the cross-examinations of these police officers?
Mike Marrinan: Well what I try to do is, tell a story. I try to tell the truthful story. At least what I believe to be the truthful story. So when I cross-examine them, I try to point out inconsistencies. I try to show the jurors, where they have said something inconsistent with physical evidence, or with their partner. And I try to shoe the jury what the true story is.
A lot of times, it’s as simple as letting the jury know that they story they’re telling doesn’t make sense. It’s not consistent with common sense. It’s not consistent with the physical evidence. So essentially, what I’m doing in cross-examination is telling my story through the officer, and trying to show the jury what the real truth is. That’s the goal we want the jury to find the truth.
Scott Glovsky: What are your key ingredients to winning a trial?
Mike Marrinan: The two most important ingredients are: caring about the client, and maintaining credibility, meaning telling the truth. So one of the things I try to do is get to know my client well. I try to understand them, most of them aren’t perfect. If I can learn to care about them and get to know them, I have a better chance of getting the jury to care about them, to care about what happened to them.
That’s one of the things I think is most important. If you’re in the courtroom and the jury doesn’t understand that you care about your client; the question is, why should they? Then the other piece of that is maintaining credibility, meaning we have to tell the truth as best we can. When I say we, I mean the lawyers and the clients.
And we have to make sure that we are being straight with the jury. So at the end of the day, they should be able to say, I trusted that lawyer, and I trusted that plaintiff. Even if they had things to say that maybe hurt their case, they were willing to say them because it was the truth. So we try to do that. Those are the two most important ingredients.
Scott Glovsky: What is the hardest thing about being a trial lawyer?
Mike Marrinan: Oh, I would say stress. There’s no way to be a successful trial lawyer without devoting hundreds and hundreds of hours to case, and really giving it everything you have. If you do that, what happens is, it causes enormous stress. Sometimes I say, each trial takes a year or two off of my life. I hope that’s not true, but it sometimes feels that way.
Then the other, a balancing act, it is to the extent. A trial lawyer has a family, children. You have to make sure that you are spending the right amount of time, and giving the right amount of attention to your family, and your children. But that is a real, real challenge, especially when you’re in trial, because it’s an all-consuming event.
Scott Glovsky: How do you deal with the stress?
Mike Marrinan: Well that’s a tough one, because I’m not sure I deal with it that well. But I guess, I try to make sure… I try not to take on too much work, too many cases. Now if you ask almost anybody, you’d say well you’re not very good at that. But I think any of us can get overloaded, and to the extent we get overloaded, we’re not doing ourselves or our clients a service. I’ve been guilty of that my whole career.
So I think one way to deal with the stress is to learn to say no when it’s appropriate. I’m very, very lucky that my wife is a lawyer, herself. She’s a retired judge. She at least understands what it’s like to be a trial lawyer, because she was a trial lawyer before she became a judge.
That helps, that she understands what it’s like when I’m in trial, and how I will be devoted to that case for whatever days or weeks it is. I think probably the most important thing for any trial lawyer is exercise, before, during, and after trials. I don’t get enough exercise myself. I need to do better at that, but I think that’s one way to help reduce stress.
Scott Glovsky: What’s your proudest moment, as a trial lawyer?
Mike Marrinan: Well I have a few going through my mind. Probably right at the top was when my client, a woman that I had been representing…. I had represented a woman for 25 years, before I finally got her out of prison. The say that she was released from prison was probably my proudest moment.
I had been working on her case, and handling parole hearings every year for her, for all those years. Finally, on a writ of habeas corpus, she was ordered to be released from prison. I do remember this: the court had ordered her to be released. We thought that there would be a day or two delay before she actually got out.
All of a sudden she called me, from a car. A parole officer was driving her to her friend’s house in San Diego, and she wanted me to meet her there. Because it was so sudden, she wasn’t able to have anybody else there. Her family, kids, lived out of town. So I remember when I was waiting for her, it was just me at this friend’s house, the guy pulled up, and she got out of the car. That was an incredible moment.
Scott Glovsky: Tell me about that moment.
Mike Marrinan: Well we’d been together every year, we had met together at the women’s prison. Each year I’d go up there and see her a few times, and then we would have her hearing. Each year, the door would be slammed in our face. Each year was just another day of what we felt was injustice. To be able to hug her, and have her out of prison, by now she was about 70 years old, I think.
It was a beautiful moment for me. I suspect it was for her. I wonder if it was more for me than her. I don’t know, but it was a beautiful moment.
Scott Glovsky: Mike, what advice do have for younger lawyers or older lawyers out there?
Mike Marrinan: Well, I think the most important thing I would say is, it’s okay to care. There were times when I was a public defender, and I know other public defenders have this experience where judges would say, “you shouldn’t care so much, it’s going to kill you.” You can’t care that much, because it’s just not healthy for you.
My belief is, it’s because we care that we can win. The problem is, if you care, it’s likely to cause pain. For example, if you’re defending a criminal case and you think the guys innocent, and you learn to care about him. He gets convicted and goes away to prison for 10 years, that is a profoundly painful experience.
Part of the pain is a result of caring. If we didn’t care that much about our clients, we would suffer less pain if things don’t go well. But there’s no way to be successful, in my view, without caring. I don’t think you can care too much. But there’s a price to be paid for that.
That’s why I see public defenders being the heroes of the criminal justice system, especially those who care. Because they have incredible caseloads that are ludicrous. Those that care, to me are real heroes, because I know the kind of pain they go through.
Scott Glovsky: Well Mike, I want to thank you for joining us today. You are truly an example for our colleagues to follow. You are the epitome of talent, caring, hard work, and humility. It’s truly an honor for me to talk to you today. I’m so very fortunate that I get to call you friend. Thank you very much, Mike.
Mike Marrinan: Thank you, Scott. I value your friendship more than you know.
Scott Glovsky: Thank you for joining us today for trial lawyer talk. If you like the show, I really appreciate if you could give us a good review on iTunes, and I’d love to get your feedback. You can reach me at www.scottglovsky.com. That’s S-C-O-T-T-G-L-O-V-S-K-Y. com, and I would love to hear your feedback.
You can also check out the book that I published called Fighting Health Insurance Denials, a primer for lawyers, that’s on Amazon. I put the book together based on 20 years of suing health insurance companies for denying medical care to people. It provides a general outline of how to fight health insurance denials. Have a great week and we’ll talk to you in the next episode.
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