Day of Reckoning

We've been fretting for nearly a week, waiting for a verdict that never came. Now it's late on Wednesday morning, and without warning it's announced that the verdict will come in today. The judge has decided to throw out the 11 counts the jury can't agree on, and go with the ones it can.

Before I leave my office, I say a quick prayer. The prayer involves Fife Symington, a long stretch in prison, and sodomy. Then I head over to the federal courthouse.

I'm not the only one. There's a small--but growing--crowd outside the building at First Avenue and Van Buren. My car radio tells me the verdict was expected to be in around two o'clock. It's now noon.

The court has taken a break for lunch, but already there's a line of reporters waiting for admission to Judge Roger Strand's courtroom. I get in line, and 15 minutes later the line behind me stretches down the corridor. When they open the courtroom, not everyone gets seats, and many have to watch the verdict on TV monitors outside. I'm one of the lucky ones who gets in.

The start of the trial four months ago wasn't well-attended. But today we have reporters from all over the country, over-dressed for their trip to Phoenix to watch the governor go down. It's now a quarter 'til 1, and there's much speculation as to when the jury will come back. Some have heard one o'clock, others 1:30. Someone jokes "Let's ask Dougherty," and a few people laugh. John Dougherty, the New Times reporter who's been delivering the dirt on Symington for six years, is in the courtroom. And he probably does know. But he's seated on the other side of the room, so the guy doesn't ask him.

The show starts at 1:15. We all stand as the jury comes in. Symington, lacking the poised, aristocratic demeanor he showed at the trial's commencement, sits nervously beside his attorney, John Dowd.

Dowd seems unflustered by the impending climax--though it's hard to tell for sure, because Dowd has one of the stupidest faces imaginable. He resembles nothing so much as an evil Mr. Potatohead. He's jowly, his little eyes gleaming with childish spite. If looks could kill, Dowd would be guilty of genocide. Today he sits beside his client, smirking idiotically as usual. Behind them, Ann Symington sits with a face like an immaculately filled-in grave.

The verdicts are read out. First come the deadlocks. Then an acquittal, more deadlocks and a dismissal. By Count 9, I feel a plunging in my stomach. Please, God, this can't happen . . .

It doesn't. When the first guilty verdict is announced, you can feel the euphoria in the courtroom, as though everyone took a simultaneous snort of coke. It's something you can feel rather than see, because most people maintain their composure. John Dougherty, witnessing the result of so many years of his work, sits impassively taking notes as the seven convictions are announced. So does Symington, as Dowd drapes a comradely arm around his shoulders. A woman sitting at the back of the courtroom can't contain herself--she starts to cry with happiness, hugging and kissing her little girl.

There's more of the same in the street outside. The atmosphere is like a state fair or a rock festival. The crowd is now dense, and it seems evenly divided between reporters and citizens. Middle-aged men with cameras and microphones, generically good-looking TV reporters, kids in tie-dyed shirts. Some carry signs expressing approval of Symington's downfall. One man's misery has brought happiness to many . . .

With one exception. A man in his 40s, either five miles high or just out of his mind, walks around screaming, "I love Fife Symington! He's done more for this state than anybody! Jehovah is on his side!"

If the best Jehovah could do is let his man get nailed on seven counts, Fife might have done better as an atheist.

He might have done better without John Dowd, too. Dowd is a high-priced Washington, D.C., lawyer with a reputation strong enough to get him a gig defending a governor. But his reputation is as a negotiator. As a criminal defense lawyer, he's barely competent. Admittedly, the evidence against Symington was overwhelming enough to stymie Perry Mason, but Dowd didn't manage to put any kind of spin on it. The best he could do was to say that it didn't matter that Symington had given inaccurate statements to the banks, because they hadn't based their decisions on those statements.

Dowd trots that one out again at the postconviction press conference. But, first, he says the prosecution had no case, and that it shouldn't even have gone to court. Asked why it did go to court, he says he doesn't know. He seems to think that prosecutions just happen, like thunderstorms or drive-by shootings. He says that bankers have privately told him that the information on the loan applications didn't matter, but they couldn't admit it in court because it would look bad to their clients.

Asked if he's accusing the bankers of perjury, Dowd resorts to his favorite "Uh-uh!" defense: "I didn't say that. You did."

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