Book Reviews

Book Review 3 - December, 2011

The Mercury Endeavor, LLC provides book reviews that defense teams will find applicable, insightful, and reflective for their practices. Book reviews are published to this website on a tri-annual basis. Viewers may quote from this webpage but must properly attribute and cite the work to Dr. Tim Jon Semmerling or Stephen M. O'Connor, The Mercury Endeavor, LLC, and the collateral sources cited herein:

Tim Jon Semmerling, PhD, JD

BOOK REVIEW: Garcia-Colson, Joane, Fredilyn Sison, and Mary Peckham. Trial in Action: The Persuasive Power of Psychodrama. Portland: Trial Guides, 2010. 356 pages. ISBN: 9781934833193.

Humanization provides us with an overarching mindset as we assemble and present mitigating evidence during sentencing phases. Before we can cast the narrative and inform others of our clients’ stories, we must first learn how to help our clients reveal their deepest secrets, harshest memories of rejection, and most humiliating experiences. They must also share with us their expressions of joy and continual hopes and aspirations. Unearthing such invaluable discovery will introduce and explain to the factfinders who our clients really are and elicit the factfinders’ empathies and actions on behalf of our clients.

Joane Garcia-Colson, Fredilyn Sison, and Mary Peckham’s book, titled Trial in Action: The Persuasive Power of Psychodrama, is an empowering instruction for attorneys willing to dig deeper to uncover discovery, to narrate more persuasive stories, and to perform more effectively at trial.1 The authors encourage their readers to shed the intellectual lessons and robotic performances learned from law-school textbooks and trial-advocacy classes, to overcome fears of trying something new, to be daring enough to take chances in preparation for and performance in the courtroom, and to become more humanistic.

For Trial in Action, such risk-taking means applying the technique of “psychodrama,” that seemingly scary concept of self-awareness and public exposure, and exploring how to derive at truth through dramatic methods of spontaneous action and role-play. Psychodrama is a method of showing, rather than just telling, what occurred. It allows defense-team members to build 3-D versions of their clients’ biographies so that factfinders can hear, see, and feel the stories. Consequently, defense teams can restore their clients’ human essences and flesh out their clients’ humanity.

The authors state that, in the future, more and more lawyers will be introduced to psychodrama and experience its powerful effects. Therefore, Trial in Action is a great way for lawyers to familiarize themselves with psychodrama and to realize how other lawyers are using it. Factfinders tend to believe that criminal defense attorneys are manipulators looking for loopholes to get their guilty clients lighter sentences. Yet, psychodrama preparation takes away the worries of manipulation because it makes the clients’ stories the lawyers’ own stories. Defense teams become more trustworthy, genuine, and human when they argue with passion fueled with personal and internalized, rather than distant and superficial, knowledge about their clients. Hence, psychodrama might be helpful in changing factfinders’ current beliefs about lawyers and their clients.

But we should not overlook the fact that the book can also be epiphanic instruction for mitigation specialists and investigators, too, who must find and anticipate the sorts of discovery, witnesses, and competencies attorneys need in order to bring the clients’ stories to life. Trial in Action’s guidance can help all members of defense teams to connect with their clients and make it easier to discover their clients’ stories in as much detail as if they had been there themselves. Psychodrama can motivate all members of defense teams to work more passionately on their clients’ behalf, and, in the process, to obtain the fulfillment and satisfaction in their own personal lives and professional careers.

Undeniably, psychodrama is a good fit for the legal profession. A psychodrama session requires five elements: (1) the stage, (2) the protagonist, (3) the group or audience, (4) the auxiliaries, and (5) the director; and the session has five portions: (a) the warm up, (b) the protagonist selection, (c) the action, (d) the sharing after the action, and (e) the processing. The director facilitates the psychodrama session through the warm-up session where the group members get to know one another, reduce their anxiety through discussion, and build trust in each other as they offer information about themselves. After group members offer the topics of their life-experiences, the director builds a common theme and, together with the group, chooses a protagonist, or star, to explore an issue in her life-experience. The director and protagonist construct a scene on the stage, which brings in contextual details that have some bearing on the action. They recruit members of the audience as auxiliaries to play roles of significant characters in the protagonist’s life, and build the action. The rest of the group acts as an audience to witness the action, but they are also expected to be empathetic and to relate experiences from their own lives with the protagonist’s experiences. As the protagonist acts out her issue, she gains greater insight into her identity and character and recognizes the psychological blocks that prevent her from communicating and connecting with other people. To assist the protagonist, the director encourages her to act in role reversal, so she can see, feel, and react as others did or might do, giving her a different vision of herself. During the sharing portion, the protagonist is reintegrated into the group as the group members have an opportunity to connect with her by sharing how her story resonates with their own similar experiences, feelings, and emotions. In the end, the director goes through the processing portion in which the group gives him feedback about the skills and methods he used during the warm-up and action portions.

The trial is congruent with a psychodrama session: (i) the courtroom is the stage; (ii) the client is the protagonist; (iii) the jury is the audience or group; (iv) the witnesses are the auxiliaries; and (v) the lawyer is the director. As the authors explain,

In both, the focus is on the story; in a psychodrama it is on the protagonist’s story, and in a trial the focus is on the client’s story. In the courtroom, [the lawyer serves] as the director and direct[s] the client and the witnesses (friendly and hostile) in telling the client’s story to the jury. The warm-up is jury selection. The action portion is the presentation of evidence. The post-action sharing is jury deliberation and the verdict…The purpose of “processing” [the] trial is not so much to analyze the merits of the case, but to determine what worked and what [the lawyer] could improve, specifically the psychodramatic methods [the lawyer] used during trial.2

Likewise, psychodrama’s power can be particularly key when preparing and presenting the narratives of our clients’ lives during sentencing phases, when emotion is essential and when we want to show our clients’ diminished autonomies. Seeing, hearing, and feeling significant people, environments, and experiences, in reenacted scenes mined for detail, can sear into the minds of factfinders those images that drive or haunt our clients. Three-dimensional portrayals paint better pictures for factfinders and open the portal to vicarious experience and shared humanity.3 Invitation for self-reflection in relation to our clients encourages factfinders to give the “reasoned moral response to the [clients’] background[s], character[s], and crime[s],”4 which is most needed for decision-making in penalty phases.

Admittedly, Trial in Action is intended as a starting point for lawyers to get acquainted with the technique of psychodrama. Becoming a certified psychodramatist takes years of study and practice, and we must be careful not to clumsily footslog through the fragile gardens of others’ psyches. But exploring and internalizing the basics can enhance performances in witness interviews, case theories, voir-dire, opening statements, direct and cross examinations, and closing arguments. The authors encourage their readers to join psychodrama workshops to develop dexterity and skills through training and practice. Such workshops are not only for lawyers, but they welcome other defense-team members as well.5 Defense teams that want to use psychodrama must first exit their own intellectual heads and set their egos aside. They must connect with their emotional selves by participating in their own psychodramas. They need to be willing to reverse roles with others and to listen to others with their own hearts. Learning to know themselves better and exposing their vulnerabilities enhance their abilities to understand, relate to, and communicate with their clients so that they can better narrate their clients’ life stories.

Just the same, Trial in Action also serves as a reliable resource of review and continual motivation for defense-team members who already have basic training in psychodrama and are primed to invest their emotions into their clients’ stories. As Peckham et al. remind us, “When you take the time to explore the story using this process, you become a master of the information and absorb the story on a deep level, so that it becomes a part of you. Your client’s story is real and personally significant to you because, through the use of psychodrama, you have heard it, seen it, and felt it.”6 Such inspirational coaching found throughout Trial in Action reminds us that unearthing invaluable discovery through psychodrama imbues the confidence, spontaneity, openness, passion, and creativity we need to tell the story. And that supplies us with the level of personal engagement necessary to make our clients’ biographies real for the factfinders so that our narratives can win their hearts and minds during sentencing.

1The authors are skilled psychodramatists, but they are also attorneys, who have formed The 3 Sisters LLP, an organization dedicated to helping people recognize and use their full potential employing psychodrama, sociometry, improvisation, storytelling, Playback Theater, and other communication methods. For information about The 3 Sisters, LLP, and the workshops they offer, visit

2Joane Garcia-Colson, Fredilyn Sison, and Mary Peckham, Trial in Action: The Persuasive Power of Psychodrama 34, 250 (2010).

3For example, Wayne Koestenbaum cites how much we all share the common experience of humiliation. Although we enjoy seeing others being humiliated at first, we naturally tend to feel for the humiliated because we ultimately know that, as human beings, we all live on the edge of humiliation: “Which is to say that anyone who breathes is ‘thinking’ about humiliation at every moment, whether or not the thought takes flight.” Wayne Koestenbaum, Humiliation 143-44 (2011).

4Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989)(quoting Franklin v. Lynaugh, 487 U.S. 164 184 (1988)(O’Connor J., concurring)).

5See National Psychodrama Training Center, (last visited Dec. 30, 2011) and Trial Lawyers College Death Penalty Seminar, (last visited Dec. 30, 2011).

6Supra note 2 at 152.



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