High school teacher inspires local public defender to publish article

John Thompson • Sep 22, 2013 at 8:38 PM

ELIZABETHTON — The latest edition of “For the Defense,” the journal of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, includes the first professional article ever published by Melanie Sellers, an assistant public defender for the First Judicial District.

Often, the first work published in a professional journal express the inspiration received by someone who inspired and taught the author. That is true of Sellers’ publication, but it is not a law professor’s deep insights that have inspired her, and her subject is not an esoteric discussion on legal matters.

Sellers’ inspiration in the article comes for her high school English teacher, Vera Scarbrough, and Scarbrough is the co-author of the article “Need to Attack a Search Warrant? Call Your English Teacher.” It contains wise advice that is of considerable value not only to lawyers and but anyone whose profession requires the use of the English language, including journalists.

The article is in the July/August edition of the journal and can be downloaded at http://bit.ly/1gMu0VN.

Sellers is proud of her high school and certain that it gave her a strong base and a head start in her collegiate and law school experience.

“I attended Oakdale High School in Morgan County,” Sellers said. In addition to the benefits she had from Scarborough as her English teacher, Sellers’ mother still teaches history at the small, rural school.

While the school did not have the high tech resources of large modern schools, Sellers said it excelled because “we had good teachers who cared about their students.”

Scarbrough taught her students to write well and told them about the importance of writing well in the career they chose to follow.

Sellers continues to see the wisdom of Scarbrough’s message, and discusses the need to write well in search warrants.

“Cop speak will get you in trouble,” the public defender said. She said a search warrant is a method of giving a factual account. It should be clear and understandable.

The best advice she gives the warrant writer is: “Use Active Voice.” A second piece of advice is: “Use Present Tense.”

Scarbrough concurs with her former student. “Her idea to attack a search warrant, especially if the content is written poorly, is just one example of how bad grammar often leads to gross misunderstandings. It is not unusual to hear where a poorly or inadequately written search warrant allows the criminal to go free, so she is spot-on in her thinking and research. As a former student, Melanie was eager to learn and highly motivated. She is living proof that the use of good grammar, both in speaking and in writing, leads to success.”

The article is full of examples of sentences that cam be made better by using that advice. Each example is followed by corrections and comments that sound exactly like the notes found on returned high school essays.

Sellers said she had three years of English under Scarbrough. She not only studied grammar, she took speech and drama, performed in school plays and studied Shakespeare, Chaucer and the other classics.

Scarbrough said she had a plaque in her classroom that read “Good English and good manners are used in this room at all times.” She said some students in the rural community would ask her why they should use “he and I” instead of “me and him.” She demonstrated by having mock job interviews where one student used good grammar and another “murdered the English language.” She said they loved the role playing and it convinced them of her point that using good English was important in achieving success.

Sellers and 29 others graduated from Oakdale in 1990. She was more than prepared for her first year at East Tennessee State University. The advantage carried through her undergraduate years, and she found they still gave her an advantage at the University of Tennessee College of Law.

Scarbrough is retired after 30 years teaching in public schools. While she has heard that the things she taught are not as important in today’s technological world, she said “the need for good English is more important than ever, especially with all the technology available. If we are not careful, we may become ‘tech-idiots’ with spell- and grammar-check.”

In the article, Sellers argues the need for good English in the legal profession. She wrote, “The purpose of an affidavit in a search warrant is simply to communicate with a judicial officer. The law requires that probable cause determinations be made by a neutral magistrate — not a prosecutor or police officer. A magistrate simply cannot make an informed decision unless the affiant has described sufficient facts and circumstances within the four corners of the affidavit.”

Sellers said her experience as both a prosecutor and defense attorney “has taught me to step back and first examine a search warrant affidavit for its effectiveness in telling a story by use of the written word. Defense attorneys using this approach may have one of those ‘AHA!’ moments and actually look forward to drafting the resulting suppression motion.”

Sellers concluded her article by writing “I never imagined the tempering by fire I received in college prep English class would help me preserve the privacy and personal liberty guaranteed my clients. In our system of justice, a red felt tip pen may truly be mightier than the sword.”

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