By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Opening statements began this week in the trial of James Holmes, the acknowledged gunman in the 2012 shooting during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The tragedy sent ripples throughout the nation, and on the heels of a jury selection that was unprecedented in its scope, District Attorney George Brauchler stepped to the lectern on Monday to open the case against Holmes. As I watched via live streaming video, I felt that he was doing a masterful job of telling the story in an organized and factual way, while using -- but not overusing -- the inherent emotionality of the story. With twelve dead and an additional 70 wounded in the attack, there was a great deal of emotion for Brauchler to draw from. And with the nation watching and the courtroom packed with victims, much of that needed to be covered in his opening statement.
Telling the victims' stories all at once would have had a numbing effect. So Brauchler made the interesting strategic choice to alternate back and forth between a narrative of the events leading up to the shooting on the one hand -- Holmes' romantic and educational disappointments and his intense planning and preparation -- and brief portraits of some of Holmes' victims on the other hand. At regular intervals in the story, the victims would appear as brief vignettes: just a few human details on one or two of the individuals. He would just give a few sentences on who they were and what brought them to the theater that night, and then, without revealing their fate, he would return to the story of Holmes' planning. As quickly as Brauchler would present these concise emotional portraits of the victims, he would just as quickly veer away, never risking too much emotionality at any one moment. It had the effect of covering two trains moving towards each other on the same track: We know a collision is coming. Another example of Brauchler's restraint had to do with the gruesome post-shooting photographs. He didn't use them. He would let jurors know that they existed for some of the victims, and then add, "But that is a photo you should only have to look at once," and save it for the case in chief. The principle at work is one that applies to all cases with an emotional component: Be measured in your use. Emotions can help, but they help the most when you're able to keep a light touch on the gas pedal.