Politics » Politics Feature

DIXON TRIAL: Roscoe's Last Chance



Well, who knows? There may have been method in the maddening, meandering examination style of Roscoe Dixon’s lead attorney after all. When lawyer Coleman Garrett continued his direct exam of Dixon on Tuesday, the former senator’s sunnyside-up saga of success-against-all-odds began to slip a few gears.       

When it came time for Dixon to explain away the visual evidence, which jurors had seen, of his pocketing stacks of hundred-dollar bills supplied by informant Tim Willis, Dixon started to falter badly.         

Asked why it was that he’d asked his former factotum Barry Myers to “throw me a stack” valued at $1000 as he prepared his exit from Willis’ Mud Island residence, Dixon seemed to forget that he’d just said that both Willis and Myers had promised “campaign contributions” when they somehow, out of the blue, had prevailed on him to drop by.           

Instead, Dixon backed and filled and stammered out a tale of  paternalistic  concern for the two young men who had been “like children” to him and needed a financial break of the sort he couldn’t give them. That was meant to explain his nonchalance when Willis, the supposed consultant for a computer recycling firm called E-Cycle, dumped a total of 6,000 bucks on a table for Myers to count out. After all, Dixon managed, he’d always wanted Myers to land a steady gig and maybe Willis had worked something out for his ol' fraternity bud Myers with E-Cycle.          

Confused as that sounded, it was algebraically neat compared to Dixon’s explanation of why he, as if impulsively, had asked for a grand’s worth of bills to take with him. If the words in his next few sentences had been eggs, Dixon would have made the messiest omelet ever seen, bits of shell and half-cooked fluid spewing everywhere.          

What it all came down to was that he’d had a hard time making ends meet while he was doing all the noble things for his constituents that Garret had taken him through. And so he…well, he needed some money, too.          

Huh? Everybody in the courtroom was thinking: Dope! You just copped to a crime when you could have pretended – as was surely the plan – that you’d merely accepted a thousand-dollar campaign contribution.          

Garrett seemed nonplussed, too, and promptly asked Dixon, was it not the case that $1,000 was the maximum permissible campaign contribution that an individual…           

“Objection!” thundered chief prosecutor Tim DiScenza. And for the nth time during this trial, Judge Jon McCalla intoned a weary “Sustained.” As even the lay folks in the courtroom knew, this was leading the witness.           

What came next was stranger. As if he despaired of getting Dixon to stay on an exculpatory course, Garrett seemed to give up and began verbally stalking his client in the style, not of a defense lawyer, but of a prosecutor – getting Dixon to confess taking not only the $1000 offered him on that occasion but another $ 1500 up in the E-Cycle offices when there was just himself and Willis, no third-party buffer.         

“I just got to the point that I needed a little help,” Dixon blubbered.          

Worse was to come. Discoursing later on his state of mind when confronted in May 2005 by FBI interrogators and lying to them, the stalwart National Guard Captain of the previous day’s direct had become abjectness itself.          

“I was scared to death,” Dixon said. “I get scared when I’m stopped for a traffic ticket.” (Some of the people in the courtroom might have remembered factotum Myers saying on the videotapes of his oh-so-squeamish boss, “He’s scared of his shadow.”)             

When DiScenza took over the cross-examination, he appeared to finish off the now quavering and seemingly helpless Dixon, laying into his self-serving protestations of hoping to do good work for his constituents even as he courted – and was courted by – the FBI agents masquerading as E-Cycle executives.           

Was E-Cycle in the business of cleaning up cemeteries and preparing luncheons for ladies? the peremptory prosecutor demanded with heavy irony. It went on like that for quite a  while.           

Out there in the courtroom, Dixon’s wife Gloria sat immobile, dressed in black, her perspiring hands clamped together in a tight vise. Beside her well-wisher Sheila Godwin of Jackson, a Democratic activist and veteran of several Ford and Dixon campaigns, had been reading from an open Bible. Psalms 52 to 54, she had explained during the mid-afternoon break. “Telling you how to cope with enemies.” Now she burst into tears. 

SO WHEN IT CAME TIME FOR THE TWO SUMMATIONS, everybody was prepared for an anti-climax. The storyline of Dixon’s decline and fall had been set – the moment characterized by one of the jurors, a stout young woman on the first row, who had kept smiling up at DiScenza admiringly as the prosecutor lacerated Dixon in his cross-examination and forced the defendant to admit to obvious contradictions.           

Perhaps wishing not to commit overkill, DiScenza kept his summation brief and to the point, outlining the evidence of the videos and audios and direct testimony, patiently enumerating the obvious offenses against the law, count by count, as well as the feeble evasions and unconvincing explanations for such actions offered up by the defense.           

It was so routine a matter at this point that David Kustoff, the famously disciplined new U.S. attorney, who could subsist on one meal a day and three or four hours’ sleep, let himself go on the back row of the courtroom, indulging in what for him was a rarity indeed, an apparent catnap. Of course, his eyes may merely have been closed in concentration.           

Nothing in the beginning of Coleman Garrett’s summation suggested its subsequent course.  Right off the bat, he was hit with two more objections from DiScenza, both sustained by McCalla. (The defense lawyer, using the phrase “In my mind…,”  had offered his own opinion about the issues of the case; and he had implored the jury, “If the consequences here were not so serious…” Both approaches were standard No-No’s and were to be disregarded, McCalla pointed out to the jurors.)          

Garrett started again, building on the assertion he had made in his opening statement last week – to the effect that the criminal conspiracy in this case had been committed by the government, not by the accused.  Roscoe Dixon, he said again, was the victim in this case.          

Mocking the prosecution’s use of such terms as “extortion,” “predisposition,” and – most importantly – “predication,” the word used to establish a pattern of criminal readiness on the part of a subject, one that made him eligible for a sting, Garrett juxtaposed these words against two of his own: “right” and “wrong.”           

It was the government that had done wrong against one of its citizens, and an humble one at that, said Garrett. There had been no conspiracy until the government committed one, no scam until the FBI and Tim Willis, the erstwhile beneficiary of Dixon favors and now an ingrate, had perpetrated one – the latter in order to avoid punishment for crimes he committed in fleecing the Juvenile Court clerk’s office and in lying to a grand jury about that.          

“Instead of being out there ‘predicating’ somebody, he should have been in prison,”  Garrett declared.           

The defense lawyer told a story, a parable of sorts about two soldiers in Vietnam, scarred by battle and weakened by unimaginable, non-stop strain,  who had “smoked dope” together “to get their minds off the war.”        

After the war, one had become an humble farmer in Mississippi, the other had gone to Chicago. Eventually he would show up at his former comrade’s modest homestead, driving an expensive car and dressed in elaborate and flashy threads.          

As Garrett told the story, the Chicagoan pointed out his friend’s obvious poverty and proposed a saving solution, that the hard-working, ill-paid farmer should raise a marijuana crop which he, the Chicagoan, would distribute for him. After many a a determined entreaty, eventually the Mississippian gave up resisting the idea and agreed, both to humor his friend and because, by now, he thought this might actually be a way out of poverty and hardship.          

The bottom line: the marijuana was grown, harvested, and baled, and the Mississippi dirt farmer made ready to present it, as previously agreed upon, to his apparent benefactor from Chicago.           

It was then, though, said Garrett, that the Chicagoan, “along with his other, finely dressed friends” emerged from the shadows and “predicated” the poor man.          

“Was he ‘predisposed’ to grow the dope?” demanded Coleman.          

Similarly, Dixon had been wheedled, cajoled, and persuaded over a year’s time to do something corrupt, the likes of which he would never have considered previously. “Tim Willis brought the conspiracy with him…The government created the scam,” insisted Garrett. Dixon had merely allowed himself to be scammed, and, “for that, he gets ‘predicated!’”          

E-Cycle,  the legislation it sought and was willing to pay for, and , by implication, Operation Tennessee Waltz itself, with its several showcase trials yet to be run – “It was all a lie!” Garrett concluded.

ALL IN ALL, THE SUMMATION WAS A TOUR DE FORCE  – perhaps a con job itself, but, if so, an eloquent one, which might well resonate in the minds and emotions of one or two jurors who could see themselves as pawns in the grip of a determined and resourceful government.          

And now all of Dixon’s fumbling and abjectness of the final day, all of the embarrassing admissions of misconduct forced out of him by his own attorney – now it all added up to the portrait, not of a loser, but of a victim. An Everyman, if you would. That was the scenario Garrett had striven to create.           

Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t.  Nobody saw an acquittal in the offing. The evidence against Dixon was so damning that conviction was still the overwhelming likelihood. But Garrett had opened the door to what seemed the defendant’s only hope – a hung jury, even if only by a solitary holdout.

At the end of everything,  after the jury had been charged and sent home for the night with the case in their hands,  prosecutor DiScenza approached the defense table and held out his own hand to Garrett.        

“Good job,” he said. Indeed it had been. Maybe the best one possible under the circumstances.

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