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PATRICIA MEADE As his own lawyer, Traficant blew it



Published: Sun, April 14, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Unlike most savvy politicians, Jim Traficant misjudged his audience.

The 17th District congressman tossed aside the rational suggestion that he surround himself with a team of high-priced lawyers. Lawyers would have taken over and, by doing so, taken away what he craves -- the limelight.

As his own untrained lawyer, he had 10 weeks to make his captive audience -- the jury -- doubt the racketeering charges against him.

If he was expecting the jury to like him and ignore the mound of evidence, he used the wrong approach.

He blew his opportunity big time by playing up the outrageous, foul-mouthed irreverent caricature he has become. He's perfected the act, and make no mistake that it is an act, since entering Congress in 1985.

A bad fit: Traficant, like a fish out of water, didn't fit in U.S District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells' magnificent courtroom, unchanged since 1910. The room's formality demands the utmost respect from trial participants.

The jury, mostly middle-class baby boomers, didn't expect and didn't appreciate a sideshow. Who would in federal court?

His hair, denim bell bottoms and cowboy boots were comically out of place. The effect was an unneeded distraction.

Anyone who studies courtroom strategy knows that defendants are told to "tone it down" if their appearance is inappropriate.

Lawyers who have female defendants with bleached-blond hair, tons of makeup, cleavage, garish jewelry and red fingernails transform their clients into shy school marms. Simple, tasteful jewelry (preferably a cross), natural-colored hair, little makeup, high-necked blouses and no nail polish is the rule.

Likewise, male defendants with long greasy ponytails, scruffy beards and biker earrings miraculously show up in court in neatly pressed suits. The completed look includes clean, short hair, and they lose the earrings.

Attention-getting: Traficant's style, for want of a better word, drew attention, but the wrong kind. It was as if he thought he was speaking to a group of die-hard supporters at a bowling alley.

His shouts, wild gestures, constant interrupting and overall bad manners showed immense disrespect for the serious proceeding.

If he realized the severity of the trial, he didn't let on.

Each day, Traficant misrepresented to reporters what had taken place in court. He made baseless allegations and wild theories, often punctuated by profanity and accusations that he wasn't getting fair coverage.

It was as if he was trying to deliver messages to jurors who may have ignored the judge's order to avoid print, TV, radio and online reports of the trial. If that was his goal, it didn't work.

If Traficant is to be believed, he didn't even look into the 37 boxes of evidence turned over to him last July. Did he imagine he could go into court and "wing it?"

He's 60 years old; he should have known better.

Waste of time: The congressman wasted the jury's time by stubbornly feigning a misunderstanding of the rules of evidence. Jurors sat in the back room for hours on end playing gin while he screamed at Judge Wells.

The congressman's populist themes -- against the big bad government and for the little guy -- weren't compelling because they had nothing to do with the evidence.

He also never understood that sometimes less is better.

If he knew that he would score no points with a particular prosecution witness, he should have had the sense to say "No questions" and stay in his chair.

Instead, as if he had an "equal-time" thing going on in his head, he tried to take as long with prosecution witnesses as the prosecutors had. He asked repetitive, often meaningless and at times silly questions.

The congressman is well-educated, but he hides it. In court, he relied on boring one-liners and crude humor best appreciated by seventh-grade boys.

Was the distinction -- made twice -- between a stallion and gelding necessary testimony?

His grins at the answers were reminiscent of a seventh-grade boy who has just burped in class and looks around to see how much his pals appreciated his wit.

Pointless repetition: No one cared, especially the jury, that Traficant is "just the son of a truck driver." What was the point of repeating it so many times? What did that have to do with his defense?

More often than not, he managed to damage his own defense by getting witnesses to repeat or add to the charges against him. New bribes emerged simply because he asked the wrong questions.

He broke the lawyers' cardinal rule of never asking a question you don't know the answer to. The result was devastating.

His defense witnesses were a mixture of friends and paid staffers.

One staffer, when given the opportunity, got what she was supposed to say backward. She recalled a colleague saying that Traficant didn't give kickbacks.

Oops. She was supposed to say that her colleague did not pay kickbacks.

A few defense witnesses fit into the category of all-purpose greeting cards. Their testimony fit whatever occasion the congressman needed it to fit.

Traficant said the courtroom was a theater, not knowing that his performance would be panned by the critics -- those 10 women and two men in the audience who found him guilty as charged.

XPatricia Meade, crime reporter for The Vindicator, covered the trial of Traficant since it began Feb. 5.




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