The Fife and George Show

I expected to find standing room only, but there are plenty of empty seats. It's the day after the trials officially start, but in reality nothing much will happen for a few days. The jury is still being selected. But when the man in the chair is the governor, it's still worth going to see. Watching your favorite crook at the start of his trial is kind of like watching your favorite band sound-checking before the show; it's not the real performance, but there will be moments that mesmerize.

On this day, the courthouse is offering a double bill. As well as being the start of the Symington show, it's the last day of the trial of his accomplice, George Leckie, who's in purgatory in an upstairs courtroom. Most people wander between the two, and I'm no exception. But I start with the governor.

Governor J. Fife Symington III is a piece of sleaze, a man without any discernible values, an inveterate liar and con artist who swindled his own mother. The list of his crimes is like an avalanche--reading it exhausts and finally overwhelms you. So, as he sits in court accused of 22 felonies, how can he still hold office?

The answer to that question becomes clear if you just watch him for a few minutes. Some people have style and some don't. Some animals have it and some don't. Dogs don't. Joe Arpaio doesn't. Cats do. And Symington has more style than you ever expect to see outside of a Parisian fashion show. He's bankrupt. He's facing decades in jail. But when you look at him sitting there with his attorney John Dowd, you'd think Dowd was the accused criminal and Symington the hotshot lawyer from a John Grisham novel. He lounges in his thousand-dollar suit, perfectly coifed hair gleaming gold under the lights.

Both of his women are present--his wife, Ann, looking tired and distraught, and the woman rumored to be his mistress, Annette Alvarez, looking sullenly sexy. Far from seeming trapped or awkward, Symington deports himself as though he's at a gathering in his honor. I can't say whether he's brave or just sociopathic, but if style was admissible as an extenuating factor in criminal trials, the governor would walk out of the courtroom without a conviction to his name.

That might happen anyway, if the judge's attitude is any indicator.
Here's how jury selection is done: The potential juror is asked some questions by the judge, after which both defense and prosecution can ask questions or request that the person be barred from serving on the jury. When I wander into the courtroom, the woman being questioned is a middle-aged, power-dressed, big-haired member of the Christian Coalition. She has the mean, pinched, arrogant face of a God-fearing Republican. She's talking about how much she dislikes labor unions. Then, when asked whether media coverage of Symington's exploits has prejudiced her opinion of him, she says no, and that she considers him to be a very honest man.

Even the narcoleptic-looking judge seems fazed. He asks her what leads her to believe in Symington's honesty.

"He's known for his honesty," she says.
At this point, the only ones with straight faces are her, the judge and Symington. She goes on to deliver a little eulogy to her hero's honesty and integrity as a politician. Then the judge asks Dowd if he wants to ask her any questions. "No!" he says, beaming, and the audience cracks up again. You can almost hear him thinking, If we can only find 11 more like her . . .

And he might get his wish. It seems only a formality that, when the prosecution asks that the woman be barred from serving on the jury, the judge will agree. You're supposed to have no preformed opinion of the accused, good or bad. The possibility of such a devoted fan of Symington's being entrusted to decide whether he's guilty is ludicrous enough to be surreal. But when the prosecution makes its request, the judge denies it. There's no chance that the woman will be allowed to serve--before the trial really gets going, either side can demand that six jurors be barred, and the prosecution will definitely insist on getting rid of her--but it's obvious where Hizzoner's sympathies lie.

Will Symington get a fair trial? No. And he doesn't mind a bit.
I decide to head upstairs and see how George Leckie's making out. Annette Alvarez has had the same idea--she's there when I arrive. It's the end of the trial, and both sides are making their final spiels to the jury. Leckie's boy goes first. Leckie, it seems, is the greatest man who ever lived, and never did a bad thing in his entire life. Same as Fife, I guess. Maybe that's why they're chums. The lawyer argues that the evidence against Leckie is purely circumstantial, and that one of the witnesses has admitted to perjury. It's a theatrical display--I half expect the guy to wipe his eyes before he finishes up and sits down. He declaims with such force that, even when you know that it's a performance and that he knows what a scumbag Leckie is, it still gets to you on a certain level.

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