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."

Well, if the bankers stood there in court and said something they knew wasn't true, isn't that perjury?

"I didn't say that."
But he did, not 30 seconds ago. And that is the hallmark of John Dowd's style--when the evidence is held in front of his face, he denies it's there. Symington's mistake, after getting caught, was to hire a lawyer as arrogant as himself. A strut and a swagger might work when the evidence is circumstantial, but, when the feds have spent years compiling reams of damning evidence, you have to do more than tell the jury it's imagining it all. It's not just dishonesty that Fife Symington is going to prison for--it's a mixture of stupidity and arrogance, his own and his lawyer's.

The trial postmortem went from strange to bizarre when Dowd declared, "We won." Well, maybe he won--he doesn't work for minimum wage, and this case is worth millions and counting. But his client's headed for a federal prison.

And that seems to be causing some dissent among the assembled masses. Although most of us are ready to party, a few people are wringing their hands over the loss of a man's career and liberty, and the pain it will cause his family. Even some of the jury members say they took no satisfaction in the conviction. One even says he'd vote for Symington again. He's just convicted Symington of being a crook, but he'd like to have him govern the state. Welcome to Arizona.

In the days that follow, the media build the myth. Symington, whatever else he may have done, was a good governor. He just made some mistakes in his business dealings. Suddenly, he's halfway to being a sympathetic figure. So--shouldn't we show him some compassion? Isn't there something distasteful about so many people so happy about the misfortune of another human being?

No. Because the creature in question is only a human being in the biological sense of the term.

The most polite way to correctly describe J. Fife Symington III is to say that the man is a piece of phlegm.

Forget the nonsense about him being good for the economy--the entire country's economy is in good shape. Symington's behavior as governor was foul.

This is the man who sneered at a poor parent who was concerned about her child's schooling and told her that no one forced them to live in a ghetto and they should just move to neighborhoods with better schools.

The woman who cried with happiness in the courtroom isn't some vicious sadist who enjoys watching people suffering. Her name is Christina Hurst, and after the trial she stood outside holding up a sign that read, "Justice for the Hurst Family." Her 6-year-old daughter held one that read, "Arthur Hurst Is Smiling."

She isn't vindictive. She just wants the erstwhile governor to be treated the same as her husband.

In 1995, Arthur Hurst was sentenced to five years in prison for theft. Since then, he has suffered the kind of abuse that is a matter of course for prisoners in this state. (The Hurst family's story will be told in a future column.) He was suffering from full-blown AIDS at the time of his conviction. A farcical trial reached a chilling conclusion when Judge Michael O'Melia told him he wouldn't walk out of prison alive.

Even if Arthur Hurst were healthy, there are dubious grounds for putting him away for five years. He has never committed a violent crime. He went off the rails and got hooked on heroin after he found out he had AIDS. He got clean while awaiting trial. He's been a model prisoner.

The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency recognized this when it decided in October 1996 to apply to the governor for a commutation of sentence. Symington had allowed the sentences of violent offenders and drug dealers to be commuted, but he denied Arthur Hurst's. He gave no reason for doing so, and he wouldn't talk to Christina Hurst about it until she called him during his KFYI radio show. He finally said that he considered Hurst a threat to society.

How is a dying man who's never been violent a threat to society?
"Probably because he has AIDS," says his wife.
That's the kind of man Fife Symington is. Someone who'd deny a dying man the chance to spend his final months with his wife and kid. Symington scored political points by declaring that we had to be tough on crime, that criminals had to be held responsible for their actions and made to pay for what they'd done. When he is sentenced in November, we should hope Judge Roger Strand takes this sentiment to heart.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address:


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