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Traficant is taking a big risk in being unprepared for trial



Published: Sun, February 17, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



It is always dangerous to speculate about the outcome of a battle, whether political or legal, in which Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. is a participant, but if Traficant's performance last week in his federal criminal trial is indicative of his strategy in defending himself, his days may be numbered.

Prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Morford, were well-prepared and deliberate and through their first witnesses laid the foundation for their charge that Traficant of Poland, D-17th, used his public position for personal gain. Conspiracy, racketeering, bribery and tax evasion are some of the charges he is facing.

By contrast, newspaper and television reports on the first week of testimony reveal a defendant ill-prepared to serve as his own lawyer. While we have questioned the wisdom of a person's defending himself in a case that carries with it a 60-year prison sentence, we have, nonetheless, acknowledged Traficant's right to do so.

That said, we do believe that at the very least he has a responsibility to come to court each day ready to proceed with his cross-examination of the government's witnesses. The fact that he was surprised when prosecutors called Atty. R. Allen Sinclair to the stand -- Traficant told the judge he did not know the government was going to proceed immediately following opening statements -- does not bode well for him. Sinclair is a former member of Traficant's staff who says he had to kick back a portion of his salary to the congressman.

While it is true that the defense does not have to cross-examine witnesses, the decision to do so requires not only an understanding of the rules of evidence, but some familiarity with what is and what is not permitted in questioning a witness.

Law school seminar: A judge should not have to conduct a law school seminar in the middle of a trial, as Judge Lesley Brooks Wells of the U.S. District Court in Cleveland was forced to do with Traficant.

We recognize that the case of United States v. James A. Traficant Jr. is unusual in that he is a congressman and, though unschooled in the law, is serving as his own lawyer. And despite Traficant's bombast and his victimization complex, he has a right to a fair trial and deserves a fighting chance against a cadre of lawyers from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

But Judge Wells should not be placed in the position of appearing to take sides simply because she's trying to keep things on track.

No one who remembers Traficant's first brush with the law -- his 1983 trial on federal charges of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion stemming from his successful 1980 campaign for Mahoning County sheriff -- would be surprised by his antics in the courtroom. That's how he successfully defended himself against the federal government 19 years ago. But as Judge Wells repeatedly cautioned him during pre-trial hearings, his decision not to hire a lawyer or have the court appoint a legal adviser for him is fraught with danger.

The jury of nine women and three men should be given the opportunity to hear the evidence and evaluate Traficant's defense without being distracted by the congressman's diversionary tactics or his lack of preparation.




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