In this episode, Scott talks to Atlanta trial attorney Nelson Tyrone. Mr. Tyrone tells Scott a story of how he learned to better understand his client.
Transcript for Trial Lawyer Talk, Episode 14, with Nelson Tyrone
Scott Glovsky: Welcome to Trial Lawyer Talk. I am Scott Glovsky and I am your host for this podcast where we speak with some of the best trial lawyers in the United States. This is a storytelling podcast, so what you hear are great lawyers who are great people telling great stories from cases that had a profound impact on them. I am still on a high from our last episode with Joe Fried and my high continues with one of the best episodes today that we have ever done. I am so grateful and glad to bring you, today, Nelson Tyrone. Nelson is from Atlanta and has been a phenomenal trial lawyer for the last couple of decades. He is truly a gem of a human being, one of the best listeners that I know, which is going to be evident in the story you are going to hear, and one of the best storytellers that I know. Let’s get started; please enjoy. Thanks.
I am very pleased and feel very lucky to have with us today Nelson Tyrone who is a phenomenal human being, phenomenal trial lawyer, and a phenomenal teacher. Nelson is an amazing lawyer who practices in Atlanta, Georgia. Although he tries cases all over the country, his practice focuses on birth injury cases. Nelson, thanks for being with us.
Nelson Tyrone: Boy; I am honored to be here and I am not sure I live up to that intro.
SG: Nelson, can you share with us the story of a case that had a profound impact on you?
NT: I can. You talked to me about this a few days ago and I have really warmed up and been thinking about one of my former clients. I used to be a criminal defense lawyer, so this is a client of mine; it was one of the last criminal defense cases that I handled. His name is Hoa Ta. H-O-A is his first name, pronounced ‘wah.’ T-A is his last name. I think it was maybe seven or eight years ago, but it really has had a lasting impact on me. Should I just tell you a little bit about him?
NT: I was a criminal defense lawyer in Atlanta. Hoa was indicted in federal court. He is a 19-year-old kid from a Vietnamese family who lived in Portland, Oregon. Hoa was charged with some horrible stuff; drug conspiracy, kidnapping. The kidnapping was alleged to have involved Atlanta, Georgia, and that is why the case was in Atlanta. When Hoa was charged, initially there were five co-defendants who were alleged to be his Vietnamese gang co-conspirators. By the time we were heading towards trial, those other co-conspirators had all plead guilty and would be testifying against Hoa at trial.
Hoa, from the very start, had explained to me that he was innocent and the story that he told me from the very start, he was innocent. It was just a very complicated set of circumstances and he just got caught up in. Let me tell you a little bit about [the case]. Hoa was charged with being involved in a drug conspiracy and a drug deal gone wrong. The allegation was that when the drug deal went wrong, meaning when… The allegation was that Hoa and his part of the drug conspiracy did not show up at the drug deal with the money. They were allowed to take the drugs from the deal and never returned. Then the allegation was that in order to even up that debt, for Hoa to be held responsible by the drug gang for the money being lost, that Hoa had to be part of a kidnapping. The allegation was that Hoa conspired and helped the drug dealing gang kidnap a person in Atlanta, Georgia, to then take them back to Portland and hold them for ransom. That was the story that the government told and it was a pretty compelling story. The reason that it was so compelling is that, if we go backwards from the moment the police showed up on the scene, when the FBI showed up to free the kidnap victim, at the end of the story, they showed up at a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, and there were two people in the hotel room. One was Hoa and one was an elderly gentleman who was the kidnap victim and the kidnap victim was very clear that he had not been allowed to leave; that he was not allowed to leave the hotel room, he was being held, and that Hoa was the member of the team holding him who had been left behind to keep him from leaving. So, it sure looked like a kidnapping.
There was one person who had nothing to do with the crime and was a kidnap victim and then there was Hoa, who clearly had had something to do with the crime. That is where we started. All the co-conspirators basically said, ‘Yeah, we are a part of this gang; we were trying to do a drug deal; Hoa was in on it; Hoa was supposed to arrange for someone to show up with some money; Hoa and that person did not show up and then we told Hoa the only way to help us is to kidnap a family member of that person and we will hold them ransom and get our money back.’
SG: That sounds like the odds were stacked against you from the get-go. Four or five witnesses were all going to testify against Hoa. How did that feel?
NT: It was not the people stacked up against us that I was so concerned about; it just sounded like an impossible story, to be honest with you. Yes, very much so, I felt that the odds were stacked against us. Just in trying to tell you the story, I did a very average job. It is a very complicated story and it is several stories at once. Hoa had a relationship with a girl who was involved in a drug deal and his relationship with the girl was that he did not really have a relationship, he just wanted to. Hoa was kind of a nerdy kid; he is a Vietnamese kid hanging out in Portland and all the Vietnamese kids would hang out at coffee shops and try to act cool. There was a group of guys from his high school who were the cool guys; they were tough and they looked like a gang to Hoa, but they had girls around them, they had cool cars, and Hoa was not friends with them but they were the cool guys. Hoa had a romantic interest who was one of those guys’ girlfriend. Hoa just thought this pretty Vietnamese girl, if he could ever get her to talk to him, would that not be cool.
He never could; she did not know he existed. It is like all of us; there is that girl that you know is never going to notice you and never going to know your name, but you admire her from a distance. Well, she was kind of rough around the edges, too, and that group of Vietnamese guys, they did drugs and did small drug deals and sort of fancied themselves tough guys and were probably headed to being real tough guys as they grew up. So, that girl came to Hoa and started to pay him a little attention. I think that she was probably just taking advantage of him. She came to him with a story, Gosh, we are trying to do a drug deal and it is really important, I need the money, and do you think you could help us find somebody. Hoa said, ‘Well, this group of guys, I think they are drug dealers.’ She did not know all of the guys in the group and Hoa said, ‘Well, maybe I could go to them, maybe they can help you.’ Hao introduced himself to the tough guys and said, ‘Hey, I have a friend, she wants to be involved in a drug deal, could you help her out?’ Not smart things to do; really foolish, bad decision making by Hoa. I think he was just naive to really appreciate what he was getting involved in.
The bad guys said, ‘Sure, we will do a drug deal, we want you and the girl to show up and we will bring the drugs, have the girl bring the money and it is on.’ They set up a time to meet. Hoa was supposed to show up and he got cold feet and could not do it. So, the girl and her cohort showed up at the drug deal, they were allowed to leave with the drugs on a promise of returning with the money and they never returned. So, A, not very smart drug dealers to let the drugs leave without money [laughs]; something you would see in a movie; not very sophisticated guys, and B, they are now holding Hoa responsible. They figure he was part of the setup. The very next day, when Hoa’s mom looks out the window of their house– Hoa lives at home with his brother, sister, and parents. Mom sees five tough-looking Vietnamese kids surrounding her son and she knows there is trouble. She had never seen it before; she had never seen her son in trouble before; these were not kids that they know or that he knew or had ever hung out with and she knew there was trouble. Mom comes out, shoos the boys away, tells them she will call police, brings Hoa inside and after a lot of denials by Hoa and a lot of refusals to say what is going on, there is a family meeting.
The family sits down and says what is going on, and he tells them the story I just told you: ‘here is what happened and I do not know what to do about it and they are telling me that she owes them 10,000 dollars and if I do not come up with 10,000 dollars they are going to kill me.’ The family decides, well, we have got to come up with some money. They have maybe 1,000 or 1,200 dollars in savings. They give it to Hoa. He takes it to the tough guys. It is not enough. They beat him up, send him home, and say get more. Over the next four, five, six weeks, there are phone calls to Hoa saying where are you, where is the money. Hoa would go to meet the tough guys at the coffee shop and they would beat him up and threaten him and say we need the money or we are going to kill you, kill your family. Hoa would go back to his family, they would try to come up with money and send what they could. At the end of that process, they were six or seven thousand dollars short; they had come up with everything they had; sold a car; they just did not have more money. That is when the kidnapping idea came up. The tough guys said, ‘well, then we are going to go kidnap that girl and we are going to hold her for ransom until whoever she is teaming up with pays the money.’
They figured out that she lived in Atlanta, or was in Atlanta, had family in Atlanta, they told Hoa you have got to come with us and show us where her family lives in Atlanta, tell us what you know, be a part of it, or we are going to kill your family. There was a scene where the family says goodbye to him and he hops in the car with one of the tough guys and they wave goodbye and they really do not know if they will ever see him again, Hoa and the tough guys drive to Atlanta. They pull up outside where they think the girl is. There is a car pulling up that matches her car; a black Civic. Someone steps out of the car and the tough guys run out and grab them. It is not the girl; it is an elderly man; it is her father. They just grab him, stuff him in the car, and drive away.
They drive all the way back to Portland, find a hotel outside of town, and hole-up and figure we are going to get our money, we now have someone connected to the person who ripped us off. The tough guys leave Hoa in the hotel room and they go out to celebrate because they figure they are about to get paid. They call their girlfriends up, they go out drinking, and Hoa and the old man are left in the hotel room. The FBI intercepts a call; within a day or so, the FBI shows up at the hotel and Hoa and the old man are there. How do you tell that story? Why does Hoa not leave the hotel room? Why has his family not called the police? There are all these disconnects. If he is really an innocent man, why does he not do something about it? Why does he not run for help? Why does his family not call for help? That, to me, was the biggest challenge. I believed he was an innocent man, but boy, it sure did not look like it and it did not fit what I could have done or my family would have done if I was in trouble. So, there we were trying to figure it out.
I picked this client and case because I was deeply involved in psychodrama at that point. I still am, but I feel like maybe even more then, but I did not have the resources to hire a psychodramatist the way I do now. I did not have any resources. I was appointed to handle the case – a federal appointed case. Hoa was held without bond. I did a couple of things that I thought really honored this method and I wanted to share those. One; we did re-enactments in his jail cell with lots of plastic chairs. There was a meeting room at the Federal pre-trial where I was allowed to meet with him; not through the glass, but person to person. It was just the two of us and I had an interpreter to help with Vietnamese.
SG: Can you share with us what a re-enactment is?
NT: Our goal was to try to put into action the scenes that Hoa was telling me are part of his story so that I could one, experience them myself and two, look around the scene and see if I picked up on anything that helped make sense of our story. Not just rely on what he was telling me, but actually go live the scene to see if there were something there that helped make sense of why he did not call the police, why his family did not call the police. Something. Three, if I was going to choose any of these scenes to help advance our case, I needed to have lived them myself. We would, if Hoa wanted to … when Hoa told me the story about the five tough guys in his front yard, we made the meeting room into his front yard. I had Hoa stand in the middle of the room and we stacked chairs around and I had him become each one the five tough guys by sitting in the chair, telling what he knows about the tough guy, and having the role of the tough guy, then stepping out and back into his role and into another chair. I could see with my own eyes and Hoa could experience, in real time, that moment of being surrounded by although not tough guys, chairs, and trying to relive the experience of what it felt like.
Of course, his mother is seeing that, so we have a chair be his mother. I used our interpreter as what is called an auxiliary, so if it was important for the mother to say something to Hoa, I would have the interpreter be the mother. Hoa would tell us what Mom said. ‘Oh, Mom came out and told the tough guys I am going to call the cops;’ the interpreter would repeat those words so that Hoa could hear it and experience that moment again. We did a lot of that and we discovered several things. We discovered that, at one point, that the tough guys when they were back in Portland, went to the police station to pay some traffic tickets because they were afraid that their getaway car might get towed if they parked it somewhere because they had outstanding traffic tickets. When they did that, they left the old man, the kidnap victim, in the car by himself. The tough guys did not leave Hoa because they wanted to keep an eye on him, so they took him with them in to the police station. There was a scene where– and we did not discover this until a few days before trial started. We worked through 20 or 30 scenes and then, one day, Hoa just decided to share with me that, gosh, they left the kidnap victim in a car, by himself, outside of a police station, and he did not run. That helped us begin to understand that the kidnap victim was not going to run any more than Hoa was going to run because that would just turn the bad guys on their family and that would be a cowardly thing to do; they would save their own skin, but they would just redirect whatever consequence there was going to be back towards people they loved.
For the kidnap victim, it was his daughter who had gotten caught up with these drug dealers and for Hoa, it was his family. So, they were both kidnap victims and that is what we ultimately discovered and that is the story that we told the jury, which was a true story. That was an important part of the method. The other thing that I wanted to share was that his culture seemed foreign to me and he kept explaining to me that Vietnamese people do not call the police, not his community. They did not trust the police; the police, they felt, were racist. They would only go to the police in an emergency and they really would not even go; they would try to solve it themselves. I was trying to unpack and understand why they had never called the police. If you are the family member, your son is in this position of being in great danger, you are being threatened for money and extorted; why do you not involve law enforcement? So, I went and lived with the family and slept on the floor in their home and took my shoes and socks off to walk in their house and sat among the bamboo plants and ate Vietnamese food and sat while they prayed– they were Buddhist– and really just tried to soak in how foreign it was and how they were living in Vietnam in a little suburb in Portland. The moment you walk through their door, it was Vietnam. Every plant, everything they ate, every word out of their mouth, their culture, their customs, everything was Vietnamese. It helped me understand and believe why they would continue to act that way and not call the police.
SG: Can you share with us a bit about how you told this story, whether it was in first person or something about how you told it?
NT: Here is the most important thing I want to share with you; I was thinking about this: out of all the things I would share, here is what I would choose. It is a very complicated story of this wanting to like the girl and these drug dealers and this drug deal that goes bad and this kidnapping in another state and it was just too much; it was hard to explain. I was desperate for a way to simplify it. I found that every time I tried to tell it, like today, it just would take 20 minutes and I was looking for something that was simpler and more powerful and easier to communicate because it sounded like I was making excuses by taking so long to explain it. We had a Vietnamese interpreter during the trial; the trial lasted several weeks. I was searching for a way to simplify my message to the jury about this young man who got caught up in something beyond his control; he was way out of his element, way over his head, and he could not stop it. That is what I believe the story was. As I kept telling that story to everyone who would listen, I ended up telling it to the interpreter. She and I would, on coffee breaks, we would talk. I was telling her that story, I could tell that she had warm feelings for my client and was sympathetic. She said to me, ‘That reminds me of a story in my culture and it is the story of the boy on the back of the running tiger. So here it is; there are two boys walking through the jungle and one of them was a very mischievous boy and knew a lot about the world and the other boy was naive and not popular and not mischievous, but he felt good hanging out with someone who was popular. As they walked through the jungle, they came upon a sleeping tiger. Now, the naive boy did not know anything about tigers, had never seen one, did not know anything about them, but the mischievous boy did. He had traveled a lot more and knew a lot about the world and he decided to play a trick on his friend. The mischievous boy said to his naive companion, ‘You know, I am so tired of walking. I bet you are, too. I bet that tiger would be willing to give you a ride on his back if you just climbed on.’ The naive boy said, ‘I am tired, but I do not know that he will let me and I am a little scared. The mischievous boy said, ‘No, do not be scared. Tigers love it when little boys crawl on top of them. You will see.’ So, the naive boy, trusting his friend and not knowing better, climbed on the back of the sleeping tiger. The tiger immediately awoke, arched his back, and took off running at full speed through the jungle. So, there you have it. You have a boy on the back of a running tiger. Now what are his choices? If he lets go, he is thrown off and surely eaten. If he does not let go and he holds on, he is forever on the back of a running tiger.’
The light just went off for me when she told me that story. So, in closing argument, after we had done our work in the trial, my wife had found a black and white image of a tiger sprinting. She is an architect; they are good artists, as well; and she drew in an image, just a silhouette, of a boy holding on to the back of the tiger. All you could see was black and white, but you could tell that there was a tiger running and there was a little image of a boy holding on. I started my closing with that image on a screen and I did not say a word. I just clicked on the projector, the image came up on the screen, and I stood there with the jury… it felt like forever; it was probably more like five minutes, as we all just looked at the image. Then I said, ‘You know I have told a lot of friends about the story of this case because it has been hard for me to understand and I have been trying to figure out a way to tell it in a simple way that was honest and made sense. One of my friends is Vietnamese and she said that reminds me of a story. So, let me tell you the story of the boy on the back of the running tiger.’ So, I told the story just like I did now. I saw maybe for the only time in my life, as a lawyer, every juror nodding their head at the same time. After a very short deliberation, they found Hoa not guilty on all charges. Had they convicted him on any of the charges, he would have been in prison for 20 years. They came out and asked the judge if they could speak with him and came over and embraced him and told him that he needed to get his act together and that he had been given a second chance and to make better choices about who he spent time with. Hoa was released that day. He had no place to stay, so he came home with me and spent the night in my loft. He has just always had a warm place in my heart and I continue, almost every year, to get a Christmas card from his family.
SG: What an amazing story.
NT: It is one of my finest and most favorite moments as a lawyer, ever.
SG: Share with us how that impacted you.
NT: I really came to believe that a lawyer can overcome a much bigger, more powerful opponent… like the United States Government. I came to believe powerfully in the power of story and metaphor, that there are human truths that we all understand and appreciate and if you can just find the one that communicates your client’s story that the jury already knows to be true– whether they have heard the story or not, they know the message to be true– that that can lead to justice. It can lead a jury of 12 people to walk a young man charged with horrible crimes out of the jury, out of a courtroom, and free him despite all of the allegations against him and all of the co-defendants who testified that he was part of their gang. I am constantly searching for the metaphor. Of all that rambling, probably the most important thing that it has left with me is that image on the screen, and I have it to this day, of the boy on the back of the tiger and how hard work, some luck… if you can find the story, it has incredible power.
SG: Nelson, what advice do you have for young lawyers out there?
NT: Outwork your opponent – you almost always can. In the kind of work we do, whether it is criminal defense or if you represent people who are hurt or people who have been defrauded, we have the ability to get to know our clients and their stories better than our opponents do. So, do that; dig in; expend yourself learning everything you can and soaking it in. Then, be open to finding a way to communicate that simply with a story, a metaphor… because there are only a handful of stories in the world. We have all been betrayed; we have all felt less than; we have all gotten over our heads; and we have all gotten in situations– I know I have– where it felt like I had started out or caused something to be started that I could not stop and I felt powerless to do anything to stop it and I felt I was just watching what I know is going to be a bad or painful result occur because of some action I took. I believe that those jurors had experienced that as well. If you live long enough and you are honest about it, you have experienced all these stories. We have all felt less than; we have all felt betrayed; we have all felt not good enough; we have all felt, ‘boy, I have done this thing and I cannot stop the results.’ If you can be honest about that and find that story and communicate it to other human beings, then they can embrace it.
SG: Lastly, Nelson, I know you are a tremendous, tremendous listener, I have seen you talk about your cases with anyone who will listen and you listening to them and thinking about it and taking notes… and you shared with us how you got the trial theme for your closing argument from the interpreter who happened to be working on the case. Can you talk a little bit about listening?
NT: I am a good talker. I do not know if that is what led me to be a lawyer and then lawyering and law school teaches you to talk all the time, so I had to be redirected to spend more time listening. Now, on my good days, I spend more time listening and taking in what is around me than talking and sharing my own point of view. In this example with Hoa, I never would have gotten to the point of understanding that the kidnap victim had been left outside by himself, 100 feet from police officers– or 20 feet as they walked by the car– and I never would have gotten to understanding that I could really show the jury the Hoa was a kidnap victim just like the kidnap victim in the indictment. I spent a lot of time listening to him and I am so grateful that I listened to my interpreter and shared the story with her because that story did not come from me, it came from her. Here at the college, I am surrounded by incredibly talented lawyers and human beings. I really stretch my ears out and try to take in.
SG: The college is, of course, Trial Lawyers College. I actually am going to ask you one more question because I think a lot of us have a lot to learn from you about balance and self-care. What do you do to deal with the stress of being a trial lawyer?
NT: There is a lot of stress to being a trial lawyer. There is a lot on the line. I feel it with my clients, I feel it financially, I feel an obligation to my family; I feel all those things. There is never enough time, never enough days. For me, among the things I do, I am sober now; it will be 14 years this July.
NT: God bless. [Laughs] I cannot really take responsibility for it, but it is a beautiful thing. I am in, essentially, group therapy several times a week, going to AA meetings. Not because I think about drinking anymore, I do not, but because I have stresses of life that I did not use to deal with very well and I would stuff them and I would drink to deal with them. I do not want to do that anymore. I spend a lot of time talking about what is going on with me, trying to be honest about it and let people know how I am doing, really doing, and taking feedback from people. I meditate; I carve out time in the morning where it is just me and I can either read something from the big book, AA related, or read self-help work– I am reading Brené Brown right now– and meditate on that. What else do I do?
SG: I know you are pretty athletic.
NT: Yes. For me, running and sports help take some of the crazy away and they are meditative for me; running can be very meditative for me. I try to pay more attention to sleep these days; I use to run myself really ragged, so I try to pay more attention to that. I would say, more than anything, I just daily remind myself– and some days I do a good job and some days I do not– but daily I am trying to remind myself to honestly check in with how I am doing and to communicate that to somebody, If I am not doing well, even if it is embarrassing, I try to let somebody know that I am not doing so hot. It takes the pressure off of trying to keep that mask where everything is perfect and I am confident and everything is awesome and I have no problems; it is a lot of work to keep that facade up and so I try not to have that facade up.
SG: Nelson, thank you so much for joining us. I have learned a lot sitting in this room talking with you and I have learned a lot from you over the years. I am very appreciative on behalf of your clients, on behalf of the lawyers you have taught around the country for the last almost couple decades, and just feel very lucky to have you as someone in my life. Thank you very much for all your gifts.
NT: I love being here and I love spending time with you. Thank you.
SG: Thank you.
Thank you for joining us today for Trail Lawyer Talk. If you like the show, I would really appreciate it if you could give us a good review on iTunes and I would love to get your feedback. You can reach me at scottglovsky.wpengine.com. That is S-C-O-T-T-G-L-O-V-S-K-Y.com. 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 is on Amazon. I put the book together based on 20 years of suing health insurance companies for denying medical care to people and it provides a general outline of how to fight health insurance denials. Have a great week and we will talk to you in the next episode.