by Haroutun Bejanyan
Every seat in Department 8 was filled on October 15, eagerly expecting to witness the closing arguments of legendary and renowned defense attorney J. Tony Serra as he stepped to the podium ready to deliver. Mr. Serra, with his steadfast presence before counsel and his stern gaze gliding over the jury, exuded a vigor with which he was prepared to fight for and defend his client, Susan Hoskins.
The room was still and silent, yet intense. As anticipation for the finale consumed the air, Serra’s booming voice broke the silence, immediately grasping the attention of all. “What is the character of my client? What kind of person has she been all her life? How is that relevant to the case at hand?” bellowed Serra in his opening hook.
The paragraphs that follow are a summery of Serra’s argument as well as paraphrasings of some of Serra’s own words.
Serra began by reemphasizing to the jury Susan Hoskins’ reputation among her peers. She has been lauded by her supervising doctors and described by her coworkers as a loving, honest and compassionate woman. A nurse by occupation, the core attribute of her job was to help others, those who are suffering, damaged and in pain.
The love she had for her husband was evident when she emotionally recounted the events in her testimony and, again in the 911 call, as he lay there dying, she still referred to him as “babe.”
No individual has really stepped forward to derogate her, not even the victim’s own son.
Bryan Hoskins’ reputation, on the other hand, was a tainted one. His employees have described him as a control freak and a bully with an acid tongue. Based on his peers’ accounts, Serra suggested of Bryan that he dominated, oppressed, manipulated and intimidated others, and that he alienated his employees.
Serra followed up, saying, “My client is a better woman. Abuse, coercive control is one of the greatest damnations that a woman can experience.” The previous statements were then tied into a broader context of October being the month of domestic violence awareness. Serra urged the jury that it is not a mere coincidence that this trial took place in the month of October.
The trial was presented to the jury as an opportunity to make a difference on behalf of the cause, since individual cases such as this have a potential to impact surrounding communities beyond. “Women must be equal!” Serra declared.
Susan held a secret deeply hidden within her. The secret was that she was a battered woman. She never reported it to authorities or talked about it with anybody.
This is a syndrome of battered women, wherein sometimes she countered her abuser, and other times she succumbed.
As a law enforcement officer, Bryan had learned various types of choke holds, which he would use on Susan. On specific occasions, he even choked her to the point of unconsciousness. But his abuse was not merely limited to the physical, as he frequently forced her to perform sexual acts against her will.
The psychological, physical, and sexual abuse endured by Susan Hoskins was torture. Serra proceeded to utilize a compelling analogy to further convey the damage inflicted upon Susan through these torturous acts.
In WWII, there was a form of torture, water dripping, which did not leave any visible scars upon the body, but penetrated the mind to leave scars deep within the psyche of the individual. Drops of water consistently and continuously fell upon the forehead of the victim, until, over time, each subsequent drop seemed like a thunderbolt crashing upon the forehead, eventually driving the victim to madness.
Serra likened Susan’s circumstances to that of the water drip torture. For the 20 years that she was with Bryan, she tolerated drip after drip. Eventually, there came a point when she had to survive. Viewed from her perspective, what she did was rational and reasonable. She conformed to her survival instincts to save herself from the situation.
The psychological damage suffered by years of abuse is clearly evident in the psychological evaluation of Susan conducted by Dr. Pirruccelli, who diagnosed her with clinical depression and anxiety.
Depression is defined as feelings of hopelessness, which she felt under the coercive control of her husband. The underlying cause of anxiety is fear, which she was subjected to by the physical dominance of her husband. In the medical reports of Dr. Pirruccelli, it was explicitly noted that the issues in Susan’s household and relationship have had an adverse effect on her mental health.
In an attempt to emotionally protect oneself, the psyche employs a mechanism to block out the truth and reality of abuse, which fragments memory of it. Although it can inhibit memories of abuse, it cannot erase the reality of it, which manages to manifest itself in psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety.
The prosecution has presented numerous myths pertaining to the victims of domestic abuse and violence, such as, you can leave at anytime or you can always report it. However, as expert Dr. Linda Bernard testified, traumatic and abusive experiences capture the mind, making it difficult to recall certain events. This is particularly why a victim of abuse cannot be interviewed in the same way as a normal person can.
In contrast, Bryan Hoskins never knew who his father was and that, lingering with him through his life, affected his perception of himself and his lack of identity. He was psychiatrically flawed and decided to take it out on others. Bryan castigated his employees for not doing every little thing right. He possessed a sadistic need to find inadequate most of his human environment.
There were 10-15 joined complaints against him at the probation department. The whole department was against him. It was mutiny. He postured a façade of masculinity as a method to overpower others. Heated in the moment, Serra glared at the jury and asked of them, “Are we going to further victimize the victim in this case?”
Serra utilized a relevant literary reference to powerfully illustrate the character of Bryan Hoskins in a manner that would resonate in the mental image of the jurors. Drawing from Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he characterized Bryan’s drunken stupor as similar to Mr. Hyde’s fury fueled delirium. Like Mr. Hyde, Bryan Hoskins had this terrible dark side to himself.
Serra advanced to recount the events of August 3, 2014, the day of the incident. Having been recently fired from the probation department, Bryan spiraled into his bingeing phase. “Stewing in the juices of alcohol, he, for the most part, became Mr. Hyde.” He then reverted back to his sober phase, which is referred to as the honeymoon phase of an abusive relationship.
During Bryan’s sober phase, Susan would get her hopes up that things were going to get better and, thus, give him another opportunity. While still in this honeymoon phase, they decided to go for a motorcycle ride on the Sunday of the incident. Susan believed that was going to be the ideal Sunday, bonding over their motorcycle ride and coming back home to cook Sunday dinner.
Staying sober for 3 months, he had given her false hope. She was filled with a sense of joy and had no plans to argue that night, but he went from bar to bar turning very rapidly into Mr. Hyde. Since Bryan had not drunk for some time during his sober phase, his tolerance for alcohol had subsided. When he ingested his usual dose of alcohol that night, it intoxicated him much more severely.
Susan’s fragmented memory of the events that unfolded that night is due to her subjection to shock and trauma. As he was walking towards her and taunting her to shoot him, she was wondering if he was going to grab the gun and beat or shoot her.
In the 911 call, she reported that she had shot her husband because he called her a whore, but that was how it usually escalated from verbal to physical abuse and this time it would not be any different.
Susan aimed and shot him in the shoulder with the intent to stop him, not to kill him. It was not that she refused to perform first aid on him, but rather, she failed to perceive that he was internally bleeding and that was what ultimately killed him.
It was a reasonable act of self-defense. He was coming at her and then she grabbed the gun, not the other way around as the prosecution claimed had happened.
Regarding circumstantial evidence, Serra outlined precisely the circumstances that dictated the actions of Susan on that dreadful night. Serra reminded the jury that evidence of provocation may reduce the sentence from murder to manslaughter. What occurred on August 3 was overwhelming provocation.
In addition, evidence of heat of passion may reduce the sentence further from manslaughter to voluntary manslaughter. It is obvious that heat of passion existed in this situation of self-defense.
On top of all this, Susan was afflicted with mental impairment, depression and anxiety. She was influenced by the effects of intimate partner battery, which instilled in her the belief of great bodily harm.
Pointing to the insubstantial position of the prosecution, Serra maintained that they did not present any experts to counterbalance the defense’s experts. From this, Serra claimed, one may infer the complicit concession on the part of the prosecution.
From the beginning of the investigation to trial, Susan complied with everything, even taking the stand at trial.
Serra proceeded to address the conspiracy concerning Susan’s fabrication of medical records. This evidence was presented by the defense and the prosecution did not even attempt to cross-examine this aspect because they knew that she was persuaded and trapped into it by her cellmate. Desperation creates desperate acts. She acted out of desperation.
When one of the prosecutors, a large imposing man, approached the stand and poised over her demanding answers, there was evidence of the symptoms displayed by a battered woman. Her body instinctively shriveled as a reflexive response.
Referring back to the testimonies of fellow peers, Serra compared and contrasted those of Susan and Bryan. Susan’s employer, a doctor, said that she was never upset with patients, she was very stable and maintained upstanding relationships with her coworkers. However, Bryan’s coworker said that he was the most belligerent and obnoxious man he’d ever met, and another stated that he was a mean son of a b**** when he was drunk.
Concluding his statement, Serra left the jurors with one final piece, “Susan contends that evidence shows she was a victim of physical, psychological, and emotional abuse inflicted on her by her alcoholic husband.” Provoked into acting out of self-defense, Susan, impelled by the heat of passion, fired at her husband’s shoulder with the intent to stop his advance towards her.
After Serra had exhausted his arsenal of evidence and argumentation, he took a breath and paused a moment for his words to resonate among the jury.