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.
The most dramatic political trial in Richmond since the government’s failure in 1807 to prove former Vice-President Aaron Burr committed treason begins this morning.
From start to finish the judicial drama could run past Labor Day. It has been 200 years in the making for political and legal junkies. They will obsess over every twist and turn. For those who want to follow this historic case, but “have a life” as the saying goes, here are 10 dramatic moments in chronological order deserving of an alert from your smartphone.
10. THE JURY IS FINALIZED. It is likely the defense team of Bob and Maureen McDonnell employed “jury consultants” although perhaps not quite the individuals depicted in the super movie Runaway Jury starring Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. A defendant’s fate is often sealed, one way or another, when jury selection is over. My gut says McDonnell’s best hope is a jury that acquits on some charges and is hung on the others, unable to reach the required unanimous verdict. The former-governor’s attorney likely wants older, business and professional individuals whose life experience teaches that a good man doesn’t have to be a choir boy.
9. DOES JUDGE SPENCER ORDER THE JURY SEQUESTERED? Requiring the jurors to live in a secure hotel, away from their loved ones, for perhaps two months is going to be one of those key decisions in this trial. If Judge Spencer has made that decision, then I presume whether a potential juror can so disrupt his or her life will be part of the process examining potential jurors. My gut says the defendant doesn’t want a sequestered jury in this case.
8. PROSECUTION’S OPENING STATEMENT. The government maintains several procedural advantages in a trial including the right to go first with its opening statement, but this can be a curse. Namely the prosecution must make sure that they are seen at the end as proving everything promised to prove in the opening statement. Even the smallest misstep can be crushing.
7. TESTIMONY OF MS. MCDONNELL’S FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF. No reason to mention her name, she isn’t on trial. The prosecution has made the luncheon hosted at the Governor’s Mansion for Star Scientific to launch a new product as a key proof of the alleged quid-pro-quo deal between the McDonnells and the company’s founder Jonnie Williams. Pre-trial motions suggest Ms. McDonnell’s former COS may have key knowledge regarding this event.
6. JONNIE “THE RAT” TRYING TO SAVE HIS SKIN OR JONNIE THE “TAINTED BUT TRUTHFUL.”
For purposes of full disclosure, I was the first to write a column questioning the government’s use of Jonnie Williams to make their case. The man is a brilliant sales guy. If McDonnell’s lawyers can’t make him look shady, then the former governor is going to prison, along with his wife.
5. WILL SPENCER THROW OUT ANY COUNTS AFTER GOVERNMENT RESTS IT’S CASE?
This is a realistic hope in my view, but it will require Judge Spencer to find that even if the jury believes everything the government presented, it is not possible to find McDonnell guilty beyond a reasonable doubt as a matter of law. The more counts Spencer tosses for such weakness, the more the jury is likely to believe the entire prosecution is a mistake.
4. CROSS EXAMINATION OF FORMER GOVERNOR MCDONNELL
The 5th amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives Bob McDonnell the right not to testify. The Judge would be required to instruct the jury that this failure to testify cannot be held against him in any way.
But I believe he will, indeed must, testify under my equation: If McDonnell wants to walk, then he will need to talk. As a skilled communicator, the former governor will do fine in his rehearsed, direct testimony, but can he walk away unbloodied after the aggressive cross-examination from the prosecution? This is going to be epic, one for the history books.
3. MCDONNELL’S CHARACTER WITNESSES
If the jury is inclined to acquit the former governor the benefit of the doubt, then his character witnesses will be key.
2. THERE WILL BE AT LEAST ONE BIG SURPRISE.
There always is the unexpected. It could be as basic as the surprise, super-risky decision to have Ms. McDonnell testify. Some unexpected event will prove very crucial to the verdict.
AND LAST: The closing argument by McDonnell’s lawyers. It will need to be a tour de force, unless the prosecution’s case has crashed and burned. Besides the corruption counts, there is a pesky charge of trying to mislead a federal bank on a loan application. His lawyers will need to wrap the whole mess into a neat package that reduces everything into a simple equation: “If the glove doesn’t fit, then you must acquit” type of brilliance.
This will not be easy. In the end, Judge Spender has a terrific reputation and while tough, he is a fair and good man, who will insist on justice being done in his courtroom.