William Jefferson defense rests after tapes played
by Jonathan Tilove and Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Thursday July 23, 2009, 10:15 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- In a moment of courtroom drama Thursday, the prosecutors in the corruption trial of William Jefferson withdrew their objections and let the former New Orleans congressman's attorneys play nearly 90 minutes of secretly taped recordings that the defense team said was crucial to his case.
"Play them all Mr. Trout, play them all, " Judge T.S. Ellis III said to lead defense attorney Robert Trout after the government legal team relented under pressure from Ellis, who had promised jurors they would be done by 1 p.m. and promised his mother he would pick her up in advance of a long weekend, and "I'm not going to be late."
After more than five weeks of prosecution witnesses, the defense presented its entire case in about two hours.
Jefferson did not take the stand, a decision that jurors will be instructed they cannot consider or hold against him.
His attorneys called only two witnesses -- an attending physician for Congress and the Rev. Larry Stockstill of Baker -- who consumed barely a half-hour in testimony designed to rebut particular elements of the testimony of Noah Samara, a pioneer of satellite radio, and George Knost, an executive of Arkel International of Baton Rouge.
Dr. Justin Cox testified that, according to Jefferson's medical records, he was recovering from quintuple bypass surgery and had trouble talking in July 2002 at a time that Samara testified that the congressman had pressed him to sign an agreement with a consulting company controlled by Jefferson's wife and daughters, even typing up the contract. On cross-examination, Cox said the records do not prove that Jefferson was incapable of speaking or typing.
Stockstill, who is pastor of Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, testified that he presided over the funeral of Jefferson's brother-in-law, Arthur Jackson, on Nov. 2, 2001, and that Jefferson attended and brought with him the governor of a Nigerian state. In his testimony, Knost described a meeting with Jefferson and the governor after they had come from a Jefferson family funeral, but he was a year or so off on the date. Lead prosecutor Mark Lytle countered that the Nigerian governor had visited the United States on other occasions.
The spare defense was predicated on the defense argument that the prosecution has failed to make its case that Jefferson traded official acts as a member of Congress in exchange for compensation for companies controlled by members of his family. In a filing Thursday afternoon, Jefferson's attorneys asked Ellis to throw out 15 of the 16 counts against him before the case goes to the jury, an extraordinarily unlikely scenario.
Excerpts of Mody
Jefferson's attorneys think a fuller hearing of the tapes mattered because it would give the jury, which had heard other excerpts in the prosecution's presentation, a very different impression of the relationship between Jefferson and Lori Mody, the Virginia businesswoman who became a cooperating witness and wore a wire for the FBI.
The prosecution presented Jefferson as an avaricious shakedown artist using his congressional office to help Americans doing business in western Africa in exchange for a piece of the action for his family.
The defense hoped that their excerpts would show the degree to which Mody, coached by the FBI, flattered, coaxed and cajoled Jefferson into some of the very acts for which the government would indict him.
On the taped segments played Thursday, Mody can be heard asking the congressman to take a larger share of her telecommunications venture in Nigeria, pressing him to help get assistance from the Export-Import Bank that he doesn't think she will need, and trying to get him to bring a female congressional staffer along on a trip to Ghana in July 2005.
Earlier, out of earshot of the jury, Ellis disputed the relevance of most of the tapes Trout wanted to play.
"There is no entrapment defense asserted or pleaded or proved, " Ellis said.
Some of the other tapes played by the defense were intended to show the ways in which Mody flaunted her vulnerability to Jefferson: her description of past business and personal relationships gone bad and her professions of trust in and dependence on Jefferson.
Commiserating over kids
The defense has tried to reframe the most indelible images of the trial: the videotape of Jefferson accepting a briefcase with $100,000 in cash from Mody on July 30, 2005, and the photographs of $90,000 of that money found stashed in the freezer of his Washington, D.C., home when it was raided by the FBI a few days later.
The government alleges the money was intended as a bribe for the vice president of Nigeria, but the defense says Jefferson accepted the money so as not to upset the fragile Mody and stored most of it in his freezer for safekeeping.
The defense also played long excerpts from a dinner conversation between Mody and Jefferson about their shared love and devotion for their children.
Without the jury present, Ellis scoffed at the relevancy.
"It doesn't matter if he committed the crime for the benefit of his children, for himself or for some charity, " Ellis said.
But Trout said that it challenges a central element of the "government's theory of the case" -- that Jefferson's children were nothing but shills to conceal his own financial interest.
Debating the tapes
After hearing from the two witnesses in the morning, Ellis adjourned for more than an hour to consider which tapes to allow, returning to say he would permit only a few of them.
After pressing his case to no avail, Trout said flatly, "the rulings of the court have the effect of eviscerating the defense."
Ellis, growing exasperated, suggested that if prosecutors wanted to stick to their guns on their objections, he would stick to his, but that perhaps on reflection, they might decide that what the defense wanted played doesn't "amount to a hill of beans" and that there is a risk that if the defense is denied its chance to play the tapes, it would improve their chances on any potential appeal.
"If I'm wrong and it has to be retried, so be it, " he declared, then adding to the urgency of the moment by saying his 93-year-old mother was expecting him to pick her up at a restaurant and he was bound and determined not to leave her marooned "along the side of the road."
When assistant U.S. Attorney Rebeca Bellows replied that the prosecution would agree to let the defense play a little more of one tape in contention, Ellis interrupted: "What I'm asking you is, do you want to persist in the objection in light of what's at stake?"
After huddling with Trout and with Lytle, Bellows said, "Your honor, we withdraw our objections."
What impact the tapes will have on the jury is unknown. They were played in rapid succession, with no setup except the date and location of the conversation. But when they were done, the defense team seemed pleased, and in a rare happy moment, Jefferson, at the defense table, and his wife, Andrea, in the first bench behind the bar, looked at each other and smiled.
The jury will hear closing arguments Tuesday and begin deliberations Tuesday or Wednesday.
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Jonathan Tilove can be reached at email@example.com or 202.383.7827. Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7861.