DOWN TO THE WIRE

The function of law enforcement is the prevention of crime and the apprehension of criminals . . . not the manufactur[e] of crime.

--Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in Sherman v. United States

The butcher is addicted. He loves the AzScam trial. Every morning he arrives early at court.

He finds a seat in the rear row of the courtroom. He nods politely to those around him. He makes certain not to get in anyone's way.

But only the butcher keeps coming. Retired after running his own meat market on the east side of town, he hasn't missed a single day of the five-month trial.

On most days, the courtroom is virtually empty. Former state senator Carolyn Walker and bail bondsman Ron Tapp, targets of the county attorney's sting operation, sit there almost in privacy, as if they were on trial for a traffic violation.

This is strange. Here is a trial that could decide some of the most important criminal issues of the decade, and it has been conducted in seclusion.

The public has lost interest in a case that began with screaming newspaper headlines and concentrated television coverage. Night after night, the television stations ran footage of Walker and Joe Stedino exchanging piles of dollar bills.

Everyone was enthralled. They couldn't get enough of it. Now it is like last season's hit cop show. We all have gone on to newer, glitzier dramas.

Only the butcher remains faithful. He was even on hand the other day when Murray Miller, Walker's lawyer, revealed Walker would not take the stand in her own defense.

"I hoped Carolyn would testify," the butcher said.
He was standing in the corridor outside the court during a recess. Walker didn't take the stand because it would have opened other doors for the prosecution to attack her during cross-examination. "Will Carolyn be found guilty?" a man asked the butcher.

"I really don't know," the butcher said. He shook his head. He smiled sympathetically. Over the months of watching the trial, he has become somewhat supportive of Walker. She has lost everything. Gone is her respected position in the state legislature and her full-time job with the telephone company. The indictment and the videotapes showing her accepting money have changed her life.

Always known as a woman with a sense of humor, the trial has turned her inward. She has been under too much pressure, too long. Never thin, she has gained weight.

"The trial's not over yet," the butcher said. "But if I was a juror, I'd have to consider one thing."
"What's that?"
"Carolyn's pockets were empty when she made those visits to see Joe Stedino."
"Yes."

"But when she walked out of his office, she had money in them," the butcher said.

@rule:
@body:The AzScam investigation has lost its glitter. It did nothing for the careers of the two men who set it in motion, former police chief Ruben Ortega and County Attorney Rick Romley.

Ortega resigned as police chief and spends his time playing golf. The political career that he kept hinting was his for the asking has not developed.

Romley is running for reelection. But no one is backing him with any enthusiasm. Even among other Republican politicians, Romley has become a sort of pariah.

All that anyone cares about the trial now is whether Walker and Tapp can gain acquittals.

The feeding frenzy is over. One of the things that fed this story was the excitement of seeing a different politician brought before the judge each week. Now all that has died down, and we want to put AzScam behind us.

Most of all, people have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that Romley, the overambitious county attorney, spent more than $1 million to actually create crimes where none existed.

There have been suggestions throughout the trial of the elaborate lifestyle undertaken by AzScam's undercover participants.

There were numerous $200 dinners billed simply as "investigative dinners" and visits to jewelry stores where Joe Stedino, star of the show, purchased gold chains.

When Stedino feared that the undercover car he'd been given to drive had been spotted, Romley's people simply bought him a new one. And during the months of the investigation, Stedino lived above the law.

There was the time that Stedino was picked up by uniformed police officers and found to be carrying two guns. Even though he was a convicted felon, Romley sent the order down to give Stedino his guns back.

Romley held a staff Christmas party at the County Attorney's Office and invited Stedino as a mystery guest. At the height of AzScam, everyone thought that was quite amusing. George Mount, the assistant county attorney in charge of the investigation, started going to Stedino's place for dinner. They became such good friends that Mount told Stedino to lie under oath if Stedino was ever asked about the dinners. When this was made public, Mount was canned. He was not prosecuted, however. How could all this have come to be?

No one ever complained that people were passing laws at the State Capitol because legislators were being paid off.

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