Opening arguments set to begin Tuesday in Jefferson trial
10:02 AM CDT on Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Bigad Shaban / Eyewitness News
WASHINGTON, D.C. - It's the beginning of the legal end, so to speak, as attorneys on both sides of the William Jefferson trial prepare to make their opening statements Tuesday in the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va.
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The Jefferson case is years in the making and centers on the former congressman who at one time was one of Louisiana’s most powerful figures in Washington.
“He had a position on Ways and Means. He had trade policy," said Michelle Swers, an associate professor of political science at Georgetown University.
But more damning, Jefferson also faced allegations that he used his congressional clout to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars for him and his family in exchange for political favors abroad. The case against him is far-reaching, with even farther-reaching legal implications.
"Questions about how this trial goes will that impact other congressional trials,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the D.C.-based group CREW, or Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
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Opening statements begin Tuesday morning, with the chief prosecutor, Mark Lytle, throwing out the first pitch to prove the 16-count indictment against Jefferson.
Catholic University of America law school professor Clifford Fishman analyzed the case for Eyewitness News Monday.
"He (Lytle) could probably give an opening statement that could last 15 minutes. He could give an opening statement that might last 3 or 4 hours, in which he might spell out in very specific detail everything he presents, the witnesses he will call, the testimony they will give, the documents and recordings he plans to play," said Fishman.
Defense attorney Robert Trout is then expected to present his version of events, likely hammering home the jury's obligation to find Jefferson innocent until proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt, while steering clear of any specifics the prosecution could use against him while arguing its case.
"Why give the prosecutor more information than you have to at the beginning?" asked Fishman.
Legal analysts say the prosecution may already be starting the trial with a mess that will certainly need to be cleaned up.
"As a practical matter, there may be some factual holes in the case," said Fishman.
Some say that is the result of the prosecution's recent announcement that it would not call to the stand the woman many had considered to be the government’s star witness: Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody.
It was Mody, authorities say, who initially sparked the investigation into the former congressman. Fearful she was being ripped off by Jefferson, FBI agents say she agreed to wear a wire and videotaped Jefferson accepting $100,000 in cash, $90,000 of which agents say they later found in Jefferson's freezer.
While Mody's videotapes would still be admissible without her taking the stand, other non-taped conversations between her and the FBI would not.
"It creates what I call the empty chair problem,” Fishman said. "For her not to testify certainly gives a tempting target for Mr. Trout, the defense attorney, to point to the witness chair during his summation and say ‘Why wasn't the key person in the case called to testify? It's not fair to the congressman, it's not fair to you on the jury to expect you to determine somebody's guilt or innocence when the main accuser in this case never showed up.”
While the government plans to use portions of the videotaped conversations between Jefferson and Mody as evidence, they don't want Jefferson's defense team to have the option of introducing other unused parts of those tapes.
Last Friday, the prosecution filed a motion saying just that, but the judge has yet to rule. One Washington-based law professor said that while it may seem unfair, there is legal precedence to support the prosecution's motion.