May 12, 2014

Remember Actions Speak Louder Than One Thousand Words

By Dr. Shelley Spiecker:


I recently had the opportunity to interview a juror in the case of The State of Nevada v. Linda Cooney in which prosecutors claimed 66-year-old Linda Cooney shot her grown son, Kevin, in a rage over his relationship with his then-girlfriend. As a result of the shooting, Kevin is an incomplete quadriplegic. As is the case with many publicized criminal cases, there are clearly two sides to the story. What makes this case unique, however, is the fact the Defense story was told by Linda’s two sons. The first son, Christopher, a Las Vegas police officer, testified that his mother was attacked by his brother and the gun went off during the struggle. The second was Kevin himself, who testified that the gun went off accidentally when he grabbed it from his mother. He further testified that he was at fault and his mother was the victim. Linda Cooney did not testify in her defense, but rather relied on her sons’ testimonies to support her innocence. 

One might think that with the only two eyewitnesses both supporting the defendant (albeit in different ways), it would be a slam dunk acquittal. But it did not turn out that way. Without the sons’ testimonial support, the prosecution relied on two fundamental persuasion principles to prove its case. After just over two weeks of trial, the 12-person jury convicted Linda Cooney of attempted murder in less than two hours. I discovered in my interview that the prosecution got to that result by relying on two simple, but profound principles of legal persuasion. This post takes a closer look at the interview and at those two principles. 


During the juror interview, I was struck by how powerful a role these two principles played – and how, as a litigation consultant, I unconsciously put these into practice when advising clients on presentation strategy. The first principle? A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words. 

In my Cooney juror interview, pictures of Linda’s alleged wounds and a photo of a cluttered living room, absent evidence of earplugs and a sleeping mask (as had been testified to), made a strong visual impression. Other consultants have commented on the impact of this fundamental principle (here and here), and abundant research outside the legal field attests to the power of visual persuasion. For example, a 2001 Canadian study found that visual messages were 60 times more likely to persuade smokers to quit than text-only warning.

But what struck me was the power that words can have when they are simply presented visually. The juror I interviewed shared with me this replication of the prosecutor’s last PowerPoint slide from closing argument, indicating that this said it all about the woman they ultimately convicted. 


The email address itself serves as convincing evidence of the prosecution’s narrative: The “Imperial Mother” wanted to control her son’s choice of a girlfriend, and that is what led to the shooting. 

And Actions

The second principle also points to the power of nonverbal persuasion as Actions Speak Louder Than Words. In my experience, it is patterns of action that have a particularly loud voice. In the Cooney trial, prosecutors effectively painted a picture of Linda as an uber-controlling mother who stalked several of Kevin’s girlfriends, harassed them with text messages and Facebook posts, and who routinely carried a gun on her person. Although the jurors were prevented from knowing the circumstances, the prosecutor was able to allude to one more key pattern in that Linda was acquitted of killing her then-husband when Kevin was 11 years old. It was within this backdrop of patterns of controlling and vindictive behavior that jurors ultimately decided the two Cooney sons were just dutifully testifying in order to try to keep their mother from conviction. 

Interestingly, there is very little social science research on why actions speak louder than words, and next to none on the power of patterns of behavior in persuasion. That may be because we do not bother to research what seems to be such a palpable fact of human psychology and understanding: We infer intents, motives, and fault based on patterns of prior behavior. I have seen it play out in trial after trial when jurors recount what most influenced them. 

So the next time you are thinking about the narrative you will present to a jury, also contemplate how you will emphasize the parties’ actions and add a visual message to your story. 


Other Posts on Visual Persuasion: 


Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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