Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Setting the Scene for Closing Arguments

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial, Day 20—Part Two

Washington, D.C.—

[Administrative note: Closing arguments provided so much material that the report on them will appear in several posts.]

The courtroom is packed for the expected drama of closing arguments today. Waiting for the court session to begin, federal prosecutors Brenda Morris and Joe Bottini share a laugh while going over notes. Powerhouse lead defense attorney Brendan Sullivan sits at the end of the defense table, staring off into the middle distance as he seems to be gathering himself for his last chance to strike a blow for his client’s freedom.

Senator Stevens sits with his daughter Beth in the front row, and for a second consecutive day he looks particularly strained. He gets up and walks to the defense table in his special orthopedic sneakers.

The drama of the first criminal trial of a sitting U.S. Senator in more than 25 years is framed by the fancy trappings in this impressive hall of justice. There are more than a dozen TV screens to allowing the simultaneous viewing of exhibits by the judge, the lawyers, the witness, the jurors, and the spectators. Wood paneling both shiny and stately covers every wall in this high-ceilinged theatre of a courtroom.

There is a single special bench right behind the prosecution table, and another special bench right behind the defense table. Each bench is full of the paid partisans for its side. The prosecutors who focus more on writing than talking in court join Department of Justice administrative personnel and FBI or IRS agents in seats on the prosecution bench, while the defense bench features Williams & Connolly associate attorneys and perhaps some paralegals. It’s like watching the back-ups cheering on their teammates on the field—although court decorum of course makes that cheering silent.

There is definitely a different look on the two benches, however. The federal agents have shorter haircuts and resemble people you who might see shopping at a suburban hardware store, while the defense bench looks more like Singles Night at the country club.

Sitting in the second row in the regular spectator area is National Public Radio correspondent Nina Totenberg, whose wardrobe is as dramatic as her voice is authoritative. Today’s highlight is an orangish-red jacket.

The courtroom has four courtroom artists, who sit in the corner in the front to get the best view of the counsel table, bench, and witness stand. One working on a sketch pad sits next to her black bag, which carries several dozen pens.

Also in court is Los Angeles Times reporter Chuck Neubauer, who is attending the trial for the first time. He was one of the authors of articles published in 2003 raising ethical questions about the business dealings of Ted Stevens and his son Ben. A report in the Washington Post has speculated that those stories triggered the federal investigation that produced this trial.

Neubauer introduces himself to a man sitting in the front row, Anchorage Daily News reporter Rich Mauer, an investigative journalist who has broken major stories on the Alaska public corruption scandals. Standing together in court, the two veteran shoeleather reporters look like old-style diggers who pore over documents as opposed to the new breed of journalists used to being made up for TV appearances.

This trial has brought together in one room the three institutions that have done the most to expose the Last Frontier’s corruption scandals: the Los Angeles Times, the Anchorage Daily News, and the Department of Justice. The feds’ big budgets and wiretap and subpoena powers obviously give them numerous advantages over the media in ferreting out official wrongdoing.

Cutbacks at various newspapers around the country have unfortunately threatened investigative journalism at those publications, as that type of journalism is expensive and unlikely to produce the quick dividends sought by many short-sighted businesspeople. It’s worth wondering, for example, whether the financial pressures now besetting the Los Angeles Times would prevent Neubauer and his colleagues from doing the months of probing that they did only five years ago to produce those original stories on Sen. Stevens and Ben Stevens.

Judge Emmet Sullivan comes in, and he is in his usual charming mode. There are none of the perhaps excessive outbursts of anger that he occasionally directed outside the presence of the jury at prosecutors or their star witness Bill Allen during this trial that has already run a month. Judge Sullivan brings in the jury, and the closing arguments start.

No comments: