Videotapes and photos make vivid evidence at Jefferson trial
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Saturday July 11, 2009, 8:43 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Some jurors knew all about the money FBI agents found stashed in former Rep. William Jefferson's freezer, even before his public corruption trial began, according to the pretrial questionnaires they filled out. It was likely the best-known facet of the complicated case.
And last week, they finally got to see the cold cash with their own eyes: 10 color pictures showing various angles and settings for $90,000 in marked bills, wrapped in foil and stuffed into Boca Burger and Pillsbury pie crust boxes. The day before -- this time from four different angles -- jurors got to see a video of Jefferson taking a briefcase from a government informant with $100,000, most of which ended up on ice.
If seeing is believing, will the video and photographic exhibits make a difference?
Legal experts say yes, even though Jefferson's attorneys argue that the discovery of the frozen money actually proves he didn't do what the government thought he did: funnel the cash to the then-vice president of Nigeria to ensure approval of a telecommunications project.
"I think the freezer money is very important, as that is a vivid image in the public's mind and may be for the jurors," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who has been following the case.
Tobias and Harry Rosenberg, a New Orleans lawyer and former top federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Louisiana, said the defense has done a good job in pointing out inconsistencies in testimony of most of the government's witnesses.
"They understandably had a more difficult time undermining the tapes and the pictures," Rosenberg said. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, those tapes, next to the pictures of the freezer, are worth volumes."
Legal experts were asked to evaluate some of the major trial developments so far: the photos, audio tapes and video; the prosecutors' decision not to call Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, who wore a wire for the FBI and was long considered the government's star witness; aggressive testimony by two former business associates that Jefferson was using his influence in exchange for payments to family-controlled businesses.
On Mody's non-appearance, there was agreement it hurts the prosecution's case, although how much is open to question.
"Not only could she provide a personal connection to the recorded conversations, but the government lost the ability to introduce unrecorded conversations and other evidence that a person in her position could have furnished," Rosenberg said.
But Tobias said it is hard to predict what makes an impression, positive or negative, on a jury.
Impact of witnesses
About the two former Jefferson business partners -- iGate CEO Vernon Jackson and Nigerian telecommunications executive Dumebi Kachikwu -- going out of their way to support the government thesis that Jefferson used his congressional office to promote business deals in return for payments, the experts disagree on potential impact.
Kachikwu, who said he was financially ruined by joining in the deal with Jefferson to bring iGate's technology to Nigeria, said that from the day he first cooperated with the Justice Department, he was looking forward "to sitting in this chair," referring to the witness stand.
Jackson, wearing a dark green prison jumpsuit, repeatedly referred to Jefferson as "U.S. Congressman William Jefferson," as if to emphasize his use of his office to promote his telecommunications technology.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington law professor who has been monitoring the trial, said he believes Jackson and Kachikwu, who worked with Jefferson in a futile effort to bring Jackson's copper-wire technology to Nigeria, were "remarkably effective."
"For the government, you want witnesses to remove any ambiguity for the jury. .¤.¤. You don't want them describing someone who supposedly held them up in this investment scheme and then speak of it in a detached unemotional way," Turley said.
Rosenberg isn't so sure.
"I agree that they seemed to go out of their way to underscore the 'official act' requirement, and such efforts might backfire with the jury," he said. "That behavior also dovetails with the defense's position that the government scripted everything."
Prosecutors argue Jefferson was acting as a congressman as he promoted various business deals in exchange for payments or jobs for his family. Jefferson's attorneys argue Jefferson was pursuing private business deals not covered by the federal bribery statute.
Turley said the government hasn't had an easy time linking the acts to Jefferson's official duties, and that might explain why prosecutors are trying to show the jury that he acted secretively. For instance, prosecutors have asked almost all of its witnesses whether Jefferson ever revealed to potential investors or government officials that his family had a stake in the projects.
Entrapment hard to prove
Likewise, the defense is trying to show the jury that it was Mody who went out of her way to induce Jefferson to do acts prominently mentioned in the 16-count indictment.
It was Mody, according to one taped conversation, who not only shared large quantities of wine with Jefferson, but told him she felt uncomfortable traveling to Africa without another woman in the delegation, suggesting he bring a female staff member. The fact he agreed is mentioned in the indictment as one of the ways he used his official office in the alleged bribe scheme.
And it was Mody who said she would feel more comfortable with her investment in the western African telecommunications projects if Jefferson had a bigger financial stake because he would work harder to get deals done.
Stephanie Gallagher, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Baltimore, said Jefferson would have a hard time proving entrapment, but showing the jury "he was being egged on" might win him some sympathy.
The defense also managed to poke holes in some of the prosecution testimony, citing inconsistencies in witnesses' statements.
For example, George Knost, the president of Arkel International, told the jury Thursday that Jefferson hit him up to sign a consulting contract for Jefferson's brother, Mose, on the first day they discussed a proposed Nigerian sugar plant. But Jefferson attorney Gloria Solomon pointed out that Knost didn't mention that during his interviews with prosecutors or even in his grand jury testimony, when he had an immunity agreement.
To save Jefferson from a guilty verdict, Turley said his attorneys will have to do more "than simply punch holes in the government's case."
The defense has to offer a narrative, Turley said, to counter the government's.
Turley and Tobias said that narrative might have to come from Jefferson himself, who could choose to testify to counteract the "corrupt" portrayal offered by prosecutors.
"A lot will ride on whether Jefferson testifies and, if so, how credible he is," Tobias said.
The trial resumes Monday.
Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7861.