Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Goolsby "War Story:" The Case of the Courtroom Slap!

They say that if you try enough cases, you will see or experience just about everything! I have learned that you never know what to expect in a jury trial! One of the strangest things I ever witnessed in a courtroom occurred during one of my Dodge County, Georgia vote-buying trials. I actually saw a woman slap a man as he testified! And nobody did anything about it! But first, let me give you a little background of this strange saga.

Dodge County is neatly nestled down in central Georgia. The largely rural county has had an infamous tradition of political candidates, (and their supporters), paying people to vote for them. As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I was assigned to handle what turned out to be the largest vote-buying case in U.S. history. We successfully prosecuted a total of 28 defendants for buying votes, including the sheriff and both candidates running for Dodge County's sole county commissioner seat.

But this post really isn't about the case; it's about what happened at one of the vote-buying trials. The incident in question involved a blind, almost deaf male voter, (we will call him "Mr. Smith"), who had been paid $60.00 to vote for a particular candidate. Now, let me interject and emphasize here that, in telling this story, it is not my intention to denigrate or make fun of this poor gentleman, "Mr. Smith," or his physical challenges. Being blind or deaf are not to be made sport of. But it is what happened to "Mr. Smith," and not his challenges, that is the point of this story.

For the trial, I had carefully interviewed and selected approximately 75 witnesses, of all whose votes had been bought, including "Mr. Smith," who were willing to testify that they had been paid for voting. While pre-trying "Mr. Smith," I became aware of his challenges, including the fact that he was hard of hearing. So, I had wisely decided, prior to trial, to simplify my questions to him when he took the stand. I carefully explained what my two questions were to "Mr. Smith" and his elderly live-in caretaker, "Ms. McGillicutty." I told them that I planned to ask: "Did you vote last Summer?" And my second planned question was: "Were you paid for voting?" I figured this plan was as simple as dirt! Surely, nothing could go wrong! And I also calculated that if the defense lawyers wanted to ask him a lot of questions, then they could deal with the ensuing train wreck, because poor "Mr. Smith" might not hear a word they said.

On the day "Mr. Smith" testified in federal court, in Dublin, Georgia, and before he took the witness stand, I stood up and explained his situation to the judge. I asked if he could sit in a chair in front of the jury box, so he wouldn't have to navigate his way up to the witness stand. The judge kindly granted my request. The judge also advised the court security officer to bring up a chair for the caretaker, "Ms. McGillicutty," who had escorted her ward into the courtroom. The court security officer put her chair directly behind "Mr. Smith's" chair, with both chairs facing the jury.

After "Mr. Smith" was sworn in, I asked the first of my two carefully planned questions. I loudly bellowed, (so "Mr. Smith" could hear me), "Did you vote last Summer?" Naturally, I expected to hear, "Yes." But that's where the strange incident began! Instead of saying "yes," I was shocked to hear him reply, "No!" And then the wheels came off the bus, when, to my utter shock, I saw "Ms. McGillicutty" lean forward, behind "Mr. Smith," and say, "Yes, you did," as she simultaneously slapped the poor man in the back of his head! Almost as quickly, and after receiving this abrupt cue, "Mr. Smith" changed his errant answer and yelled out, "Yeah!"

I could not believe what I had just witnessed! The woman had actually slapped a witness in the head! I paused and waited for the judge or defense attorneys to object or somehow protest this strange occurrence. But I was equally shocked that there was no reaction from any of the defense attorneys. They all just sat there! They did nothing! Maybe they were just shell-shocked, too!

So, I immediately proceeded to my second planned question: "Were you paid for voting?" And here, dear readers, words cannot adequately describe the expression on poor "Mr. Smith's" face, or the cringe he exhibited, (no doubt he was worried that he would get slapped again, if he answered incorrectly!), as he softly replied, "Yeah."

That was it! "No more questions, your Honor," I shouted, as I ran for cover at the prosecution table! But the defense attorneys all still just sat there, at their tables. They did nothing! Finally, one of them stood and announced, "We have no questions!"

This unusual episode had ended! Ultimately, with the help of "Mr. Smith," (and "Ms. McGillicutty!"), along with all the other witnesses, all the defendants were found guilty of vote-buying. And once again, I had learned a lesson that, no matter how hard you prepare, you never know what to expect in a jury trial!

1 comment:

  1. Richard, lol Bess does that to me all the time, glad i wasn't in court though.
    You are great, Bess says hi