In one trial, all the arguments that supported Mrs. Johnson had some vivid detail and the arguments against her were just the relevant facts with no descriptive detail. The other trial contained the opposite combination - vivid details in the arguments against Mrs. Johnson and none in the arguments for her.
For example, one argument in the mother's favor said:
Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime.
The vivid form of this argument added the detail:
He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.
An argument against the mother was:
The child went to school with a badly scraped arm which Mrs. Johnson had not cleaned or attended to. The school nurse had to clean the scrape.
The vivid form of the arguments against Mrs. Johnson added the detail that as the nurse was cleaning the scrape she spilled Mercurochrome on her uniform, staining it red.
The details were designed to be irrelevant to the judgment of Mrs. Johnson's fitness. It mattered whether she attended her son's scrape or ensured his hygiene. It didn't matter that the nurse's uniform was stained or what action figure the boy's toothbrush was modeled after.
The result? Jurors who heard the favorable arguments with vivid details judged Mrs. Johnson to be a more suitable parent than jurors who hear the unfavorable arguments with vivid details. The details had a significant impact.
Why did the details make a difference? They boosted the credibility of the argument. If I can see the Darth Vader toothbrush, I can see the boy brushing his teeth in the bathroom which, in turn, let's me see and remember Mrs. Johnson being a good mother. (Made to Stick, p. 138-139.)
I witnessed the power of vivid detail in a child sexual abuse case I prosecuted. One of the witnesses was a civilian who had come upon the defendant attempting to anally rape my 10-year-old boy victim behind a tractor trailer truck in a parking lot. It went to trial as an attempt because this witness and his co-worker apprehended the defendant and called the police before the crime could be completed. But not before they saw the defendant behind the boy with the boy's pants down and the defendant's penis exposed.
On cross examination, the defense attorney tried to raise some doubt about the civilian's eye witness account. When the witness described the young boy's Mutant Ninja Turtle underpants, it was all over. That vivid detail carried the rest of the sordid scene.
The lessons for officers
The public, including jurors, cannot begin to imagine many of the things you deal with on the street. One or two vivid details in your testimony - the kind that paint a striking and distinct picture - can help them. It can also boost your credibility and the credibility of your message. Look for such details and testify to them.
You can also boost the credibility of victims and witnesses you interview. Ask them to picture the incident and describe it to you in detail. Bring out in detail what they saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched.
A detail about the smell of a suspect's aftershave or hair gel, the chaffing of his unshaved face, the Spiderman bedspread or pajamas, the Sponge Bob toy, the logo on a t-shirt, baseball cap, or belt buckle, the vanity license plate, the hula doll stuck to the dashboard may not be material to the essential elements of the crime, but they may be the difference in the jurors believing a witness - or not.