Friday, January 14, 2005

Coleman's Defense Continues: The Fight Gets Personal

This is the sixth installment in a series by Rev. Alan Bean of Tulia Friends of Justice guest blogging for Grits from the Tom Coleman perjury trial. See also coverage from the Texas Tech school paper, AP and the Amarillo paper. Also, news comes that one of the jurors is an ex-cop; hopefully he can retain his objectivity.

Rod Hobson is appalled that many of the defense attorneys appointed to Tulia drug sting clients rolled over and played dead in the courtroom. They were accommodating, polite and referential. They went through the motions in the sure knowledge that they were ordained to lose. Hobson doesn’t like losing and he doesn’t think he is doing his job until he hears a judge threaten him with contempt.

Rod Hobson is five-foot-four; Kurt Lechtenberger stands six-foot-eight. The two men clearly don’t like each other and if it came to blows I suspect Lechtenberger would hobble away with badly bruised kneecaps. But although the two men are on opposite ends of the growth chart they are equally pugnacious, competitive and intimidating. At one point this afternoon Judge David Gleason told the legal rivals that if they engaged in another shouting match he would see they would soon be sharing the same jail cell.

A few moments later, with the jury in recess, Gleason apologized for the jail cell remark but told Hobson and Lechtenberger that the bench would look upon any further sidebar sniping as contumacious (and we all know what that means, don’t we?) Hobson and Lechtenberger seemed relieved to know where the lines were drawn.

It was been obvious from the outset that if Tom Coleman couldn’t pay off his debts in Cochran County in 1998 he certainly can’t afford a troika of high-dollar lawyers. Yesterday it was revealed that John Read, Kurt Lechtenberger and Marvin Marshall are doing the Coleman gig pro bono.

John Read told the media early on that "Tom Coleman isn’t smart enough to lie" and there is little evidence that Lechtenberger and Marshall are impressed by Tom Coleman, the man. In his media rant last Friday afternoon Mr. Read suggested that Governor Perry’s decision to pardon thirty-five Tulia drug dealers was politically motivated. This view, though rarely voiced in public, enjoys broad mainstream support in the Panhandle.

This afternoon Kirk Lechtenberger placed the mild mannered John Nation in the witness box and upbraided him for allowing Yankee lawyers to mug a defenseless Tom Coleman during evidentiary hearings in 2003. "eight hours and two hundred pages of testimony for the defense," the towering attorney thundered, "zero hours for the defense."

"Witnesses cannot talk on their own," Lechtenberger reminded Nation, and "can’t on their own ask questions or correct things." If damaging or imprecise comments can be rephrased or retracted shortly after they are made it is possible for a client’s testimony to be rehabilitated. But since Nation made no attempt to cross-examine Coleman this opportunity had been lost.

Mr. Lechtenberger emphasized to the jury that Mitch Zamoff, the attorney who dissected Coleman at the Tulia evidentiary hearings, practiced law in Washington, D.C. Lechtenberger even wrote "Zamoff, Washington, D.C." on the blackboard so jurors would understand that Zamoff and company were Yankee lawyers.

As has happened so often during the past four days, Coleman’s attorneys threw down the gauntlet only to watch Rod Hobson wield it like a mace. Hobson had his colleague read through the most damning portions of Coleman’s testimony in March of 2003. "You will be Tom Coleman," Hobson told Nation, "and I’ll be the Washington D.C. lawyer, Mitch Zamoff."

During the next few moments jurors heard the ex-cop say "I didn’t steal no gas," and swear repeatedly that the charges against him in Cochran County had been "dreamed up" by a lying Sheriff, a lying Sheriff’s deputy and a lying county attorney. Even worse, Coleman’s regurgitated testimony clearly contradicted many of the statements made earlier in the day by Tom’s mother and Garry O. Smith, the attorney who had represented Coleman in Cochran County. In some respects this was even better than having the flesh and blood Coleman on the witness stand.

Read, Lechtenberger and Marshall are galled by the fact that Yankee lawyers like Mitch Zamoff, Yankee pundits like the New York Time’s Bob Herbert, and Yankee politicians like Hillary Clinton can manipulate public policy within the Republic of Texas.

Tom Coleman says he couldn’t live anywhere but Texas. He has appeared on Sixty-Minutes and a BBC documentary clad in a black cowboy hat, wearing western attire, riding horses, smacking a heavy bag in the gym, chewing tobacco, driving a pickup truck, and cross tie walking into the sunset. Tom ain’t no Yankee sissy.

With that in mind, John Read spent half an hour this morning evoking Tom’s idyllic childhood through a series of Polaroid pictures. Ostensibly, the Dallas attorney was demonstrating that, whatever J.C. Adams might say, Tom Coleman wouldn’t be caught dead in no brown cowboy hat. "Mrs. Coleman," Read said, "I want you to come up here and stand in front of the jury." Read flashed a Polaroid of a tiny Tom Coleman at the age of two, wearing a black cowboy hat, then handed the picture to a passive Irma Coleman. Then Read displayed a picture of Tom Coleman at age three wearing a black cowboy hat. Then it was Tom Coleman at age four wearing a black cowboy hat. A pattern was clearly emerging.

Working his way up to Coleman at sixteen Read declared, "Now Mrs. Coleman does this picture show your son sitting on his horse."

"I object to the relevancy of the horse," a bemused Hobson interjected.

But the color of Tom’s hat was a side issue. Read knew that a jury weary of a prolonged "paper trial" based on the dissection of obscure documents would be eager to see a few pictures. For a few blessed moments Tom was no longer a corrupt cop; he was a mother’s son, a toddler with pail and shovel, a young man galloping across a meadow on his first horse. Message: Tom is a human being; Tom is a Texan; Tom is a lot like ya’ll.

Swisher County DA Terry McEachern wasn’t big on research and trial preparation but he was highly proficient at pushing emotional buttons. Small town Texas law is about raw sentiment and blatant appeals to prejudice. Read, Marshall and Lechtenberger grew up with this system and like it.

Jennifer Klar is helping bring Tom Coleman to heel just as she did prior to the Tulia evidentiary hearings. Unheralded and anonymous, Klar spent thousands of hours leafing through heaps of trial transcripts, court documents, depositions and interview notes. Carefully, meticulously and relentlessly she boiled this material down to bite-sized chunks so Yankee lawyers like Mitch Zamoff could strut their hour on the Swisher County stage.

Jennifer Klar and Rod Hobson differ as much in temperament as Hobson and Lechtenberger differ in height. But they share a commitment to quaint virtues like truth and justice. They look at men like Larry Stewart, Jerry Massengill and Garry Smith, their blood begins to boil, and they get to work.

Tom Coleman’s lawyers believe in Texas. They dislike sophisticates, snobs and Yankees. They don’t much like Tom Coleman and they sure as hell don’t respect him; but they will go to great lengths to protect their man from his Merlot sipping tormentors because he’s as Texas as prairie oysters.

Rod Hobson believes in Texas too. He also believes in getting paid. But the Lubbock lawyer’s ultimate allegiance is to justice and, because of that, Sheriff Larry Stewart may soon be facing a grand jury. This fight is getting personal.

Alan Bean,
Tulia, Texas

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