Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series. It explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).
HLN: What was the first big trial you ever prosecuted?
Vinnie Politan: I’m a young, green, prosecutor with almost no experience. In walks my adversary: The guy who’s been trying cases for 30 years, one of the biggest characters around the courthouse, always outrageous, always outspoken and super aggressive. His eyes lit up because he knew he had a rookie prosecutor. His defendant was a woman who had a boyfriend in prison and [the boyfriend] was coordinating a drug deal through her.
HLN: How did you feel during the trial: Empowered? Nervous?
VP: Throughout the whole trial, he’s basically trying to bait me to make all these mistakes. He’s busting my chops the whole way through. I mean, he knows how to do this stuff and I’m figuring it out as I’m going along. My investigators are rookies, too, so he’s picking them apart on the witness stand. I was holding back because I knew I had one thing in my back pocket -- my closing argument. And I pushed the envelope a little bit, but he had been such a character throughout the trial, that I had to do it: During my closing argument, I basically did an impression of him. Probably shouldn’t have done that, but I had to, because he was pushing my buttons the whole time and I knew he couldn’t respond.
HLN: Did you win that trial?
VP: In the end -- good news -- she was convicted (I guess that’s bad news for her). And it was upheld on appeal. But it was an experience. The criminal defense attorney’s eyes had lit up at the beginning of the trial, but by the end, his head was down, he was walking home and his client was going to jail.
HLN: How did that feel?
VP: Oh, it was great! You always want to win, but I also believed she was guilty.
HLN: How would you evaluate Kirk Nurmi’s strategy as a defense attorney in the Jodi Arias trial?
VP: There are two types of defense attorneys: Ones who understand that if we don’t have defense attorneys (everyone’s entitled to an attorney), then the system fails. Then there are the true believers who think that they have to put the state to the test to protect the people who are being attacked by the government. Kirk Nurmi, I think, falls into that category. I’ll be honest with you, I think he’s done a great job. I don’t believe Jodi Arias is innocent of premeditated murder, but I think Nurmi’s done a great job with what he’s been handed.
HLN: What do you think of Juan Martinez’ strategy as the prosecutor?
VP: I love Juan Martinez! I would prosecute a little bit differently: I would save more for my closing argument. He makes all his arguments during cross-examination, which is one way prosecutors do it. But Juan Martinez is the guy you want prosecuting in your county, because he believes in his cases and he does everything he can to get a conviction.
HLN: What are you expecting out of closing arguments in the Jodi Arias trial?
VP: I always hope that the lawyers have saved something for the closing arguments, that they’ve seen something that no one else is seeing yet. And they put it together and a big light bulb goes off, “Wow, I didn’t think of that -- I didn’t realize that!” That’s a good closing argument. I’m expecting that in this case. I don’t know if I’m expecting it from both sides, but definitely from Juan Martinez.
HLN: What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned from practicing law?
VP: The bottom line is that if you end up in criminal court, you lose control over a part of your life, even if you don’t go to jail. Being in the courtroom and seeing people being sentenced every Friday, you see young people coming in, making a mistake at age 18, and now they’re on probation, and they’ve got to follow these rules, and if they don’t follow them, then they get arrested again and again. You see lives turned upside down. And the other lesson -- and this was eye-opening for me -- when you watch crime on TV (I love cop shows!), the criminals are usually motivated by money or jealousy. But you go into a court house, 90-95% of the cases somehow relate to drugs. The guy who’s robbing and stealing is doing that not to be rich but to support his habit. They get in trouble and get arrested because they have drugs on them; or now that they need so many drugs, they start selling them. I now cover high-profile cases, which is the tip of the iceberg, but everything else is drug-related. It’s the root of all the problems in the criminal justice system.