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Traficant's trial of the century, the second time around



Published: Sun, February 3, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



For U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., this week opens his trial of the century. He had a trial last century, too, which he won.

The jury is yet to be seated in this one. There are some signs that this trial isn't going to be like that of 1983, when a histrionic Traficant cursed and clowned his way to an acquittal.

To hear two of Traficant's jurors in the first trial tell it in a story on Page One, the prosecution assembled a dream team -- for Traficant. They were arrogant. They talked too much. They looked too confident. They didn't come across as likable.

A trial isn't supposed to be a popularity contest, but jurors are human. And Traficant is a better judge of human nature than most folks, and a skillful manipulator to boot.

A stronger judge might have stopped some of Traficant's shenanigans. Most important, a stronger judge would not have let Traficant use the ruse that he was his own lawyer to testify on his own behalf without being subjected to cross-examination.

And make no mistake: That Traficant is defending himself -- one man against the overwhelming power of the federal government -- is a fiction today, just as it was then. Traficant had, has and will have plenty of legal help, but the jury will never see a lawyer in a $2,000 suit sitting next to him at the defendant's table, whispering advice in his ear.

If what Traficant did in 1983 is instructive, he'll be meeting with legal advisers in Cleveland every day after court adjourns. They'll give him tips, help him plan strategy, do a lot of the things a lawyer of record would do. Then they'll get out of the way.

Risks: This methodology gives Traficant a certain psychological advantage with the jury, but it gives him a distinct procedural disadvantage. There are going to be times when he should object, and he won't. There will be times when he shouldn't, and he will. He's probably going to lose some points on which an appeal could be based because he'll miss the opportunity to put his objection on the record.

Traficant is smart enough to know that and apparently is willing to take that chance.

There's a lot at risk. If convicted on all counts, he could face six decades in jail and $2 million in fines. And if he's guilty, he deserves the maximum.

Contrary to what apologists would have people believe, everybody in Washington doesn't do what Traficant is accused of. Only a tiny percentage of congressmen would ask for or accept kickbacks from their employees. That is a crime that combines elements of both extortion and theft, and anyone doing it should be prosecuted and jailed.

Other congressmen don't shake down contractors for work, don't borrow cars for long periods of time from constituents and don't conspire to have constituents who are seeking their support buy things for them or from them.

Of course it hasn't yet been proved that Traficant has done those things either, but the evidence that has been made public so far should be unnerving.




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