One word. The judge left one word out of his instruction to the jury in a murder trial and so a new trial must be held. It obviously was a very important word. The judge in the original trial had given instructions to the jurors that their verdict “must be guilty” if guilt beyond a reasonable doubt was not proven, instead of saying “must be not guilty,” which would be correct in that situation.
This is something I’ve actually seen a lot in proofreading. The lawyers (and, obviously, judges) know what they want to say, but in the process of instructing the jury or writing an important brief, important words are sometimes left out. If you are proofreading something and think that something important has been left out OR that a double negative changes the entire meaning, bring that to the author’s attention and let them decide if it should be changed.
There were other issues in this trial including the defense attorney who “really did not prepare for the penalty phase” and has since been convicted of tax crimes and disbarred. The court threw out the death sentence, ordered a new sentencing hearing but rejected a new trial, and the case is on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. All because of one word.
I always love it when proofreading makes the news. It happened again this week when apparently a law clerk left a comment in an order filed in a California federal district court case. The order has since been amended in the court record to take that comment out, but Justia.com kept the original at https://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/california/casdce/3:2018cv02434/599099/56.
While this notation could have been much worse, it highlights the need to bring things you question to your attorney’s attention. My proofreading tip is as you are nearing the end of the editing process (i.e., you are on version 5 and it is due tomorrow), if there are blanks for references to other documents or things I want to bring to their attention, I highlight it. That way, as you scroll through the document, it stands out that it still needs attention.
Another hint is that when I am actually filing things with the court, I open the document before I attach it to the court filing system and scroll through it to make sure there is no highlighting or other marks that don’t belong, THEN I attach it to the court website.
Notes to yourself or to your attorney are an important part of making your document the best it can be, but leaving notes to yourself in your final document is just sloppy and could possibly give your opponent information you don’t want them to have.
I saw an interesting article recently that I thought I would share with you. It is an Above the Law article entitled “Lawyer’s Pleadings Are So Bad that Judge Orders Future Filings Must Be Reviewed By English Teacher.” (https://abovethelaw.com/2018/01/lawyers-pleadings-are-so-bad-that-judge-orders-future-filings-must-be-reviewed-by-english-teacher/) Here are the lessons I took from this article:
- Judges DO care about proper grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and that the document makes sense.
- Headings matter. If the heading has nothing to do with the following paragraph(s), it is of no use to anyone and shouldn’t be there. Headings are helpful to direct the reader to the areas of the document that you want them to find easily.
- Formatting makes a difference. To have a judge call your document an “eyesore” is not good.
- Getting an order requiring you to have an English teacher certify that the pleading was reviewed and approved and that the certification is included in the filing is embarrassing–and probably career-changing, particularly when the suit was dismissed and I assume his malpractice insurer has been alerted.