By Paul Goldman
Editor's note: Paul Goldman is a guest columnist for DecisionVirginia.com. The views expressed below are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NBC12.
If the McDonnell trial were a reality TV show, then one would need to heap praise on the script writers for an audience-grabbing first episode. It is the Virginia version of the acclaimed movie Sex, Lies and Videotape, without the sex perhaps, at least yet.
What’s Love Got To Do With It, the biggest hit single ever for songstress Tina Turner, appears to be the prosecutor’s theme song. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber’s opening statement is basic enough: when it came to Bob and Maureen McDonnells' desire to enrich themselves, they were still on the same wave length.
Ms. Aber did a good job, but at the same time, as I predicted yesterday, her opening statement would be key moment in the case. It was for this reason: she conceded the fundamental weakness in the government’s case.
It boils down to two words: Jonnie Williams, the main accuser, the guy who provided the cash, gifts and loans the prosecution claims were given in exchange for the governor’s promised illegal help. At one point, Ms. Aber called Williams a “vitamin salesman," an absurd description given his long history in the business world. She knows it. This indicates the government is still groping to find a way to benignly describe their star witness, knowing the defense has at least thirty different shades of shady, shifty, and super manipulative for painting an unflattering portrait.
The “vitamin salesman” moniker was a mistake because it hurts the government’s credibility with the jury in the long run. However, Ms. Aber did do a very smart thing yesterday: she admitted Mr. Williams initially lied to the prosecution about his relationship with the governor and Mrs. McDonnell.
That’s right: the government admitted Mr. Williams first backed up the McDonnells' legal position, namely the cash, gifts and loans were all given without any strings attached in terms of a quid-pro-quo exchange. Ms. Aber followed the rule in trials: put the bad news out first about your witness, if at all possible. Why? This enhances the prosecutor’s standing with the jury, especially in this case when Williams’ reputation for telling the truth is central to the defense. If the jury ever loses faith in the prosecutor’s veracity, the McDonnells will be acquitted.
This admission might have normally received headlines, but the sensational claims about the relationship between the three main players in the case captured the media’s attention and rightfully so. It reminds me of the terrific country song by Patty Loveless, You Don’t Even Know Who I Am.
The refrain “You left me a long time ago… so, what do I care if you go?” seems to be what the defense is saying about the McDonnells' marriage, enforced by their arriving separately for the trial.
The defense depicted Williams as not merely a con-man in the world of business, but also in terms of his ability to manipulate Ms. McDonnell once he sensed her vulnerability due to an estranged relationship with her husband.
The “broken marriage made her an easy target for the master manipulator” defense strategy naturally proved a headline-grabbing claims.
But what did the jury think of it?
My gut: As I mentioned in an interview with WWBT yesterday, it might seem a tad too convenient at this point. Moreover, it places a great burden on the defense to prove what they have now claimed. What do they mean about her having a “crush” on Mr. Williams so strong it made her vulnerable to what exactly? It is a “wow” factor for the media, but there is no way to know what the jury makes of it.
Brilliant defense strategy or Tabloid Trash?
One thing is clear however: The defense feels the jury’s view of Mr. Williams’ character is the make or break issue in the trial. They are painting a picture of someone who “played” the prosecutors, the governor, the first lady, the chief of staff to the first lady and the list figures to grow during the trial. The defense wants to make this a trial about Jonnie Williams.
The great criminal defense attorney’s put the government on trial. As the government’s star accuser, this makes Jonnie Williams the proxy for that strategy.