By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
In the ongoing trial of George Zimmerman, the surprises were in evidence from the very first moments of opening statements. Prosecutor John Guy raised some eyebrows by, quoting the dispatch conversation, dropping the F-bomb as the third word in his opening statement (the first two words were "Good Morning"). But it was the first moments of the Defense opening that passed the eyebrow raising stage and went on to straight out incredulity. Defense attorney Don West began with a knock-knock joke:
Who is there?
George Zimmerman who?
All right, good. You're on the jury.
It was met with absolute stone-faced silence from the jury, so much so that West had to follow it up with "Nothing?" and clarify his purpose by adding "That's funny." Not to most observers it wasn't. As Florida criminal defense attorney Randy McClean shared with Huffington Post, "If you're defending your client for second-degree murder, you probably shouldn't start out your opening with a joke." Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz went further saying he was stunned: "This is a murder case," he said, "The victim's family is sitting in the courtroom with tears in their eyes and he's telling a knock-knock joke? I just don't get it." In addition to the sense of incongruity as it was told and the fact that it fell flat in the telling, there is also the substance of the joke: a kind of veiled insult to the entire jury panel for knowing nothing about the case.
There is a lesson in this example that extends beyond the joke and the Zimmerman case. That lesson is that attorneys should proceed with extraordinary care on the subject of comedy. While public speakers often feel the need to build a bond or break tension through planned humor, the use of intentional jokes can carry a big risk in the formal setting of a courtroom. Perhaps surprisingly, the subject of attorney humor (note: I'm talking about jokes by lawyers and not about lawyers) has actually been the subject of some commentary and even research. This post will take a look at why it is a risk and share a few rules of thumb for the cautious use of humor in trial.