TRAFICANT CASE Few spectators sit in on trial
The courtroom has been less than 20 percent full.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
CLEVELAND -- Some consider United States of America vs. James A. Traficant Jr. to be the biggest local trial since, well, the last United States of America vs. James A. Traficant Jr. trial.
You would think the courtroom would be packed to the rafters with people eager to catch a glimpse of the congressman's antics as he defends himself against federal charges including racketeering, bribery and tax evasion.
In anticipation of a swarm of press wanting access to the Traficant trial, U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells established an overflow room to accommodate them.
Reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and Reuters have been on hand from time to time to cover the trial.
But the reality is the trial has attracted far fewer people than originally anticipated.
Who's there: The Mahoning Valley's media outlets are staffing the trial as are a handful of Cleveland reporters. The Associated Press has a writer covering the case. An author writing a book on organized crime is on hand. And there are a handful of interested spectators. But that's it.
The courtroom is less than 20 percent full, and there is plenty of space in the overflow room.
"We're surprised that there's so few people here," said Ted Heineman of Poland, who sat in the courtroom Thursday with Dale Dixon, also of Poland.
"We're two fellas who've known of [Traficant] for a while, and we wanted to see what was going on for ourselves," added Dixon.
Their impression of Traficant, the nine-term Poland Democratic congressman, as a defense lawyer?
"He's struggling to prove his point," Dixon said. "I haven't seen him disprove anything yet."
Heineman added that Traficant is "very dramatic, but he's dumb like a fox."
Supporters on hand: Two middle-aged women, who declined to give their names, also spent the better part of Thursday in the courtroom watching Traficant in action.
Even though the women said they were ardent supporters of Traficant, one of them said, "He's probably guilty of everything the government says. But he's done nothing wrong compared to the rest of Congress. If we're going to indict someone, we need to look past him. He's small potatoes. I don't care if he's guilty or not, he does a hell of a job for the people he represents."
During breaks in the trial, the two women whispered to each other about how badly they feel for Traficant and wondered why the government needs three prosecutors at their table -- saying it is a waste of taxpayer money.
The Cleveland women said they would probably attend the trial once or twice a week.
Heineman and Dixon aren't so sure. "It's moving very slowly," Heineman said. "I can't imagine people being here for two months."
The slow pace of the trial is a direct result of Traficant's abilities as a defense lawyer.
Although patient, Judge Wells is stern when it comes to making sure Traficant, who is not a lawyer, follows the rules of the court.
The judge had to remind Traficant several times to follow certain court procedures, such as introducing evidence and asking witnesses questions instead of making statements to them, and asking them to respond to hearsay. The judge also admonished Traficant for taking long pauses between questions.
Despite the pace, most of the jury seemed attentive to the goings-on in the courtroom. Some stare at the floor or away from Traficant while he asks questions of witnesses, but for the most part, they watch his every move.
Jurors' reactions: Based on facial expressions and body language, the jurors are a mixed bag when it comes to Traficant. For example, a young male juror seemed quite amused at some of Traficant's attempts at humor, while a woman sitting near him clearly was agitated by some of the congressman's comments, shaking her head at one point when Traficant made an off-the-cuff remark.
Each juror has a notebook in which they can write anything they want about the trial, although most of them wrote little when Traficant was cross-examining former staffer R. Allen Sinclair, a key prosecution witness.
The mood in the courtroom is one of respect.
Even before the trial resumed Thursday, those sitting in the courtroom whispered to each other. There's a feeling that you have to speak very quietly as if you were in a church or a library. Even Traficant, who is normally loud and boisterous, quietly sat at the defendant's table before the trial resumed, looking over documents.
The spectators sit in pews they can barely see over. Before testimony began, they either stared at the incredibly high ceilings in the courtroom or glanced through reading material they brought with them including newspapers, a Civil War magazine, a financial newsletter and "Surprised by Joy," a book by C.S. Lewis.
Judge Wells is apparently a stickler for time.
Her bailiff walked into the courtroom at 8:50 a.m. Thursday and told those inside that the trial would begin in 10 minutes. At exactly 9 a.m., Judge Wells walked into the courtroom. She likes to take a 90-minute lunch break about noon each day and does so, give or take five minutes.
The perspective in the courtroom is quite different than in the overflow room.
The high-ceilinged courtroom could pose a challenge for jurors to hear everything going on, but witnesses use a microphone, and years of public speaking enable Traficant to project his voice without the use of any electronic equipment.
The overflow room has two large televisions, with screens of about 30 inches or so, showing pictures from fixed cameras inside the courtroom. One camera is a wide, far-away shot of the judge and the witness box. You can see the defense table in the picture as well as two or three jurors. The rest of the jurors are not visible on the television, nor is the podium where Traficant and the prosecutors stand to question witnesses. The sound in the overflow room is quite clear.
The other camera is a fixed shot of a white board that either side can use to write information down that can be used to enhance a point they are making.
One major advantage to sitting in the overflow room is you can come and go as you please. In the courtroom, the doors are closed during testimony and if you leave during breaks, you had better get back before testimony resumes or you are locked out.