Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana was convicted Wednesday on 11 of the 16 corruption charges against him in Alexandria federal court. The conviction follows years of litigation and controversy – including an unconstitutional raid on a congressional office by the Bush Administration.
The case was best known for the discovery of $90,000 in Jefferson’s freezer. What is fascinating is that the jury acquitted on the counts that directly dealt with the cash in the freezer. The also acquitted on the foreign corrupt practices act. Yet, when U.S. Attorney Dana Boente of the Eastern District of Virginia was asked what the most important piece of evidence was in the case, he responded, “We always thought that a powerful piece of evidence in this case was $90,000 in a freezer.”
The statement seemed to reaffirm views that the evidence was valued more for its prejudicial than legal effect. In the end, it was not evidence that compelled a convictions on particular counts. However, it obviously had a damaging impact on the jury. There is no question that the evidence was properly introduced and was the legitimate basis for criminal counts. Yet, it is a bit troubling to see the prosecutor cite a piece of evidence as that most important when it was only marginally relevant to the actual convicted counts.
Monday morning quarterbacking will now occur over the decision of the defense team not to call Jefferson to the stand. By not doing so, the defense avoided a punishing cross examination by the government. However, it also left the highly negative view of Jefferson unchallenged. One reporter told me that he was told by a defense lawyer that the reason they did not call him could be summed up in two words: Ted Stevens. However, the decision could also be questioned in two other words: Martha Stewart. By not taking the stand, Stewart virtually guaranteed conviction. Moreover, despite his legendary arrogance, Jefferson is far more personable than Stevens. The jury clearly did not like Stevens, who came across (accurately) as an over-bearing and dishonest individual. While I agree with the defense’s decision to put Stevens on the stand, I could not pick a worse individual to connect with a jury.
To give credit to this defense team, they did an excellent job at trial and lead counsel Trout did a masterful closing in the case. By putting Jefferson on the stand, they could have ended up with a sweep of 16 counts rather than just 11 counts.
The prosecutors tried to argue that Jefferson is a flight risk but Judge Ellis rejected the notion. The prosecutors are likely to ask for the maximum and face roughly twenty years. Judges tend to go to the maximum for public officials convicted of crimes connected to their public offices. The federal sentencing guidelines include aggravators for such breaches of trust. Even a ten-year sentence would present a severe penalty for a 62 year old.
I must confess to having little sympathy for Jefferson, who was known as a greedy and arrogant man on the Hill. His greatest asset in the case proved to be the Bush Administration which caused huge delays and controversy with its unconstitutional raid. The raid was not just entirely unconstitutional but entirely unnecessary, as I discussed in my testimony to Congress. It was a thuggish act that turned Jefferson into the victim. A court later sided with him on the constitutional question.