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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.

The prosecution, by contrast, does poorly. Their guy's attitude is snide, and he doesn't really present any evidence against Leckie. He doesn't even dispute that the evidence is circumstantial. Instead, he tells the jury that it doesn't have to be 100 percent sure of Leckie's guilt to convict him. The prosecution's case is weak, and it looks pretty good for Leckie, but his demeanor is the opposite of Symington's.

It almost feels good to see Leckie here today, to see him like this. This man is an arrogant criminal, who once smirked and swaggered as he and his friend Symington cut state programs and laid off workers. This is a man who, when driving drunk, ran down a cyclist--and then, when a witness barred his way to prevent his escape, he ran her down as well. This is a man used to committing crime and getting away with it--in the DUI case, the police didn't look for him, and it was left to the woman he'd nearly killed to track him down. The police never submitted the case to the County Attorney's Office. Leckie is a man whose experience has led him to feel free to break the law, knowing that his money and his position will ensure that the police cover up for him.

This is as repulsive a human being as you could hope to see getting his deserts in a court of law. So it almost feels good to see him here. Almost, but not quite. As I look at him, I can't help but hope he'll be acquitted. I can't guess whether it's from the cancer that ravaged him or from the shame of a criminal trial, but he has an air of pathos as shocking as his customary arrogance. He seems smaller than he is as he sits quiet and unmoving beside his lawyer. I imagine that he'd flinch if you went up to him and yelled in his face.

It's late in the day, so the jury decides to start its deliberations the following morning. The judge admonishes its members not to read or listen to the news meantime. Some journalists get up to leave, wanting to get back to Symington. The judge doesn't let us. He orders us to sit down and wait until he says we can leave. After a while, he decides to release us, and we make our way back downstairs.

I decide to get out of there.
As I walk onto the street, George Leckie is just in front of me. When the jury acquits him, his swagger and spite will return, but right now he doesn't know what the verdict will be. He walks shakily, and talks to people in a hushed, painful rasp, a souvenir of his cancer. He's so pitiful that a journalist who in the past has attacked him ferociously in print goes up to him and tells him, with obvious sincerity, that he wishes him well. This is kindness, something I wouldn't expect Leckie to understand, and it's hard to tell whether he does. He just nods, thanks the guy and shuffles away. The suit he wears is as expensive as Symington's, but Leckie makes it look cheap and shabby.


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