MORE

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.

Isn't it ironic that the biggest fish they caught in this net was Walker, the only one who had actually attempted to write a bill making gambling legal?

How could Walker be guilty of accepting bribes to do something she had been championing all along?

@rule:
@body:I went to the sixth floor of the County Building the other day and walked into Judge Michael Ryan's courtroom shortly after 9 a.m.

There were fewer than a dozen spectators in the court. This was on a day when Stedino, the state's star witness, was scheduled to retake the witness stand for cross-examination. They were winding down the defense in the trial of Ron Tapp, the former bail bondsman, who is being tried along with Walker. The courtroom now has an air of unreality, almost like something out of Franz Kafka. Perhaps it's because the defendants, the lawyers, the judge and the jury have all been together too long.

There are 507 videotapes stacked on a shelf that runs along the front of the courtroom, just below the level of Judge Ryan's bench. Each videotape is in its own box. The contents of each box have been marked carefully for identification.

During this trial, all of those tapes have been played. As a result, boredom has engulfed all the participants, the jury and the court personnel included. This is a state of boredom that can only be described as massive.

Murray Miller, Walker's lawyer, sits at the first defense table. He wears a dark suit. By now his face is set in a perpetual grimace. Miller seems to have reached the point of exhaustion. He has worn himself out writing motion after motion and ending with a heroic cross-examination of Stedino that lasted for days. His son, Richard K. Miller, also a lawyer and an employee of Murray Miller's firm, has been at his father's side throughout the trial.

Some lawyers criticize Miller for taking the Walker case. They look at it only from a business standpoint. You won't see the lawyers who advertise how they can get you off from drunk-driving charges taking a case like this.

There is an easy way to become as rich as a lawyer in this town. One of the wealthiest lawyers of them all specializes in drug cases. He never goes to trial.

"Here's what I can do for you that nobody else can," he tells the drug dealer. "You pay me up front. I will go to my contacts inside the police department. We will arrange a plea. You'll get minimum time. But you will have to give them someone else in the drug business."
Payments are high. There is not only cash, but also fancy cars and houses--sometimes owned by the parents of the drug dealer.

And when the police move on the next drug dealer in line, quite often he has been referred to this same lawyer. There is an endless circle of moneymaking in this type of lawyering. It is good business, and you don't have to spend five months in a courtroom on a single case, as Murray Miller just did.

Of course, Miller knew when he got into the case that he wasn't going to make money. He took it because he thought the issue was important enough to litigate. If that makes him a bad businessman, it also makes him a compassionate lawyer. Walker sits alongside Miller. She sits erect. Her elbows are on the table in front of her. More surprising, she doesn't seem tired. Frightened is a better description.

At the defense table directly behind Miller and Walker sits Larry Debus with his client, Ron Tapp, the bail bondsman.

Right now Debus is like the safety in the biggest football game of the year. Debus, with his skills at cross-examination and oratory, is the only one who can turn the tide.

At first glance, you can see that Debus is wired. He has been working for weeks to prepare for his cross-examination of Stedino. @rule:

@body:The moment everyone has been awaiting is about to begin. Stedino strides confidently into the courtroom. He enters through the rear door and goes directly to the witness stand.

Stedino grins. He is wearing what appears to be a freshly pressed gray suit. He is a big man, weighing better than 220 pounds. But Stedino doesn't look like the mobster he portrayed in the videotapes.

 

Right now Stedino seems more like an usher getting ready to pass the collection plate for the 11 o'clock mass. "As a courtesy," Debus says, "I'm going to ask you by what name you would like to be called."

"You can call me Joseph," Stedino says. They finally settle on "Joe."
This is the start of what will be a grueling mano a mano. This final battle between Debus and Stedino will take days before it ends. It is the closest thing to a spectator sport that the law has to offer.

And it is not really a spectator sport, because it takes so long. People brought up on and taught to watch 30-minute sitcoms will lose their concentration. A cross-examination like this could last for days. But it might take much less time. If Debus realizes he cannot break down Stedino's defense mechanisms, the lawyer will back off.

During this first session, the two men are elaborately polite to each other. It is the final day of the week, and Judge Ryan calls a halt after an hour. They will go at each other again the following Monday.

In this brief meeting, Stedino comes off as a professional witness who is both glib and likable to the jury. Debus is as good at cross-examination as lawyers get. Out in the hallway, the butcher is waiting for the elevator. "How will it end?" he is asked.

The butcher points to Debus, who is just leaving the courtroom.
"It's all up to Debus," the butcher says. "He gave such a great opening argument. If he can break down Stedino and give a good closing. . . .

"I don't know. It's close. But maybe Debus can pull it off.


Sponsor Content