The Wilkes Trial

The trial of Brent Wilkes finally got underway here in San Diego. I thought that by now everyone in San Diego had heard of Wilkes, who’s accused of bribing former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Most people in the jury pool said they had not, and some knew only vaguely of the Duke’s downfall.

As saturated as this city has been by news of Cunningham, I find that hard to believe. I think prospective jurors were chomping at the bit to get at the trial. How many other trials feature a disgraced congressman and his hookers? I thought I saw a winner’s smile cross the face of a few of the lucky seven women and five men.

Representing Wilkes is Mark Geragos (of Michael Jackson/Scott Peterson/Winona Ryder fame). I didn’t really understand why he represents so many celebrities until yesterday. Geragos is a treat to watch in court. He’s engaging, funny, and he’s done this so many times he stays completely relaxed and avoids being rude.

Geragos is facing what he referred to as the “Gang of Four,” a quartet of dark-suited federal prosecutors. What is it with the feds and dark suits? The agents who investigated the case formed a blue wall in the back of the courtroom. Geragos with his lavender ties and grey suits, looks like a peacock by comparison.

Prosecutor Phil Halpern made the opening statement for the government. He began with these words: “Lies. Deceit. Greed. Most of all greed. In many respects, this case is all about greed.” Wilkes, he said, had gotten rich by corrupting Duke. Sitting at the defense table, Wilkes literally got redder and redder as Halpern went on.

It was a strong opening, but then Halpern lost steam. He veered into a civics lesson on the appropriations process followed by a history of Wilkes’ career in the automated document scanning business. Zzzzzzzz.

Worse, Halpern overplayed a strong hand with a PowerPoint presentation littered with tabloid-style bullet points. Wilkes had “a congressman in his pocket.” Members of the House Appropriations Committee have their hands “on the piggy bank.” Getting on the committee is like being the first kid on the block to have a new Nintendo, he said.

He kept putting his little twist on things, insulting the jury’s intelligence. I don’t know why he didn’t just let the evidence speak for itself. He’s got hookers in Hawaii and $700,000 in bribes to buy a yacht and pay off a mortgage on a mansion for a congressman who is as corrupt as you can get. Plus, he’s got an arrogant defendant. No need to overdo it, Phil.

Geragos repeatedly objected that Halpern was not stating the facts like he was supposed to but arguing them, which is what you do at the end of a trial. When the jury went home for the day, Geragos asked for mistrial.

Now, Judge Larry Burns had spent most of the day picking a jury, so there was no way he was going to go for that. I’d bet Geragos himself knew there was no way the judge would say agree. Even so, Halpern lost his cool. He started laying into Geragos for missing filing deadlines and other assorted sins. Judge Burns said it reminded him of arguments he has had with his wife.

Halpern will pick up his opening on Tuesday. We’ll see if he tones things down a bit then.

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