Tyrone Moncriffe was on the path to be a Worthing high school football star when a leg injury prevented him from finishing the season. Without football, Moncriffe was unsure about what he wanted to do with his life. When he was a sophomore at Texas Southern University, Moncriffe’s cousin was arrested. Going to court with his cousin got him interested in a career in law that would make him be known as a “story-teller” among his peers. It is his ability to tell the stories of his clients, many of whom have faced capital offenses, that makes him one of the most effective defense attorneys in Harris County.
Last year, Moncriffe was able to fulfill one of his lifelong dreams by lecturing to a group of Harvard Law School students. Earlier last month, Moncriffe defended a young man convicted of killing a Bellaire police officer.
Q: How did you end up going into law?
A: I was a sophomore in college and I get a phone call from my mother that my cousin had been arrested. We all went to the courthouse to support him and I see the defense attorneys talking to the prosecutors. I told my grandfather that night that I wanted to be a lawyer but didn’t know if I was eloquent enough or smart enough to go to law school. My grandfather told me to “never let your limitations hold you back.” He told me to seek someone that I admired and asked them how they got to where they are.
Q: Who did you contact?
A: One night, I’m watching tv and I heard the “golden voice” of Barbara Jordan. I called Jordan’s office to ask to speak to her. I wanted to ask her how I could be a better speaker and more eloquent. I wasn’t able to reach her that day so every day for the next two or three weeks I call her office trying to reach her. Her staff had to ask me to stop calling and that Ms. Jordan would call me back. A few weeks later, the phone rings at my mother’s house. On the other line is the “golden voice” of Barbara Jordan.
Q: What advice did Barbara Jordan give you?
A: Barbara Jordan told me to dream big. She told me to imagine I was a lawyer at Harvard talking to all these people. She told me that lawyers are the movers and shakers of the world and that they represent the Constitution. If I wanted to be a lawyer, I had to be the best.
At the end of the conversation, I asked if she would send me a letter so that my friends and family would believe me when I told them I spoke to Barbara Jordan. She sent me a letter a week later that is framed and hung on the wall near the entrance to my office.
Q: What would young Tyrone Moncriffe tell the first year lawyer Tyrone Moncriffe?
A: “It’s not all about you.” When I was young, everything was the Tyrone show. I wasn’t able to connect to the jurors. As I became mature, I allowed the client’s story to connect with the jurors. I was too busy being a lawyer instead of a human being.
Q: How has that helped you with your cases?
A: Trials are about telling your client’s story. It’s a story within a story. There’s the story the prosecutor wants to tell the jurors and then there’s the client’s story. Lawyers have to be trained to understand that jurors are a combination of the logical and emotional. You have to acknowledge them, let them know you see them. Then they will want to help you. Jurors make decisions based on stories: who they should help, who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, what are the themes, what are the stories in this case. We have to help them see the humanity in the client.
Q: What advice would you give young and new lawyers starting out?
A: Robert Jones told me when I first started to take an acting class. I took an acting class in 1984 and it transformed my ability to communicate with people. I was able to learn to respond to something the audience was doing. I learned to read a frown or a headshake and learned how to respond. I learned to say something and then wait for a response.
Also, all lawyers should go to the trial college training. I went to the training in 2000 in Wyoming and learned how to take off my mask. As lawyers, we have masks. We put them on and we take them off. We become “authentic” when we take off the masks. You become strong because you’re authentic.
We forget when we’re talking to jurors to look into their eyes because we’re too busy being a lawyer. I one time saw a juror tell a lawyer that his father had died. Instead of responding to the juror, the lawyer moved on and did not respond to the juror. That lawyer failed to see that juror as a human being. Jurors see things and know things. They want to connect with the human spirit. You have to try to get the jury to see the good in your client.
Finally, watch as many trials as you can. Ask a lawyer if you can sit with them when they’re in trial. Go to trial. You have to let the prosecutors know that you’re willing to go to trial or they won’t be afraid of you or respect you as a lawyer.
Q: How have you noticed the practice of law change from when you first started out?
A: Back when I first started out, the judges, the prosecutors, and state all talked. They tried to resolve things. Now, there’s not that much talking between the parties going on. There are many that come into the district attorney’s office with no life experience. The defense lawyers are different, too. Now, the lawyers want to make a lot of money and drive a certain car. Back then, the defense lawyers tried to challenge the fourth amendment. We had a zeal back then. Now it seems like there’s this attitude that we can’t fight them (the State). Let’s move our cases as quick as possible to make money. There’s a trend of lawyers going after money instead of honing their craft.
Interview with Tyrone Moncriffe as told to Thuy Le. Thuy Le is a former Galveston and Harris County prosecutor. She has been licensed since November 2007 and is a graduate of Syracuse University College of Law.