Traffic Court Trial Drama: “The Government’s Theory Makes No Sense!”
Attorney William DeStefano began the second day of closing arguments on Friday by conceding that maybe, just maybe, his client, former Traffic Court justice Michael Lowry, had committed some ethical transgressions.
DeStefano’s trademark bowtie and uncombed, Eraserhead-lite hair cut a sympathetic figure at the center of the courtroom – more Thomas Dolby than Clarence Darrow.
Maybe my client stepped over his ethical boundaries a bit in his handling of a few traffic cases, he said, but this was not illegal.
“What the government is trying to do here is equate the violation of an ethical rule with the commission of a crime,” he said. “In my profession, and in the doctoral profession, there is a similar ethical code: A lawyer or doctor shall not have a romantic engagement of any sort with a client or patient.”
A violation would be sanctioned by a citation or disbarment, he said. Not a prison stay.
Friday, DeStefano was the first of four attorneys to give his closing statement in the ongoing corruption trial that will determine the fate of five former justices of Philadelphia Traffic Court, one Chester County magistrate, and one Chinatown businessman. The U.S. government contends that the group conspired to give its friends and associates breaks on traffic tickets, costing the city and state thousands, if not millions, of dollars. The group is charged with assorted counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, conspiracy, and perjury.
Soft spoken and cheerful despite the proceedings’ earlier start on Friday – “I’m a morning person,” he told the jury – DeStefano stressed that, due to the wide-sweeping system in place, it was inevitable that a few people might get a break here or there.
“I think you folks could understand any person doing a repetitive activity 100 times, sometimes 200 times a day, it’s easy for some things to fall through the cracks,” he said.
The two following attorneys, representing justices Robert Mulgrew and Thomasine Tynes, respectively, argued down a similar path.
Mulgrew’s attorney Angela Halim even went so far as to use a pie chart to demonstrate what her side claims is a frivolous amount of “fixed” tickets.
Halim, in an attempt to paint her client as a man who treated each case with a fair and equal hand, took the time to remind the jury that, of the 66,000 tickets Mulgrew adjudicated from 2008-2011, the FBI has deemed a scant 16 (0.01 percent of them) as “fixed.”
In what was arguably the most crowd-pleasing visual aid of the day, Halim used a gigantic orange pie chart to demonstrate how miniscule 0.01 percent really is, zooming in on an otherwise invisible green dot that represented the amount of tickets Mulgrew is accused of “fixing.”
“Mr. Mulgrew did the best he could in an imperfect system,” she said, echoing attorney William Brennan’s statement on the behalf of former justice Willie Singletary Thursday afternoon.
Similarly, Louis Busico, addressing the jury on behalf of Tynes, again reminded the jury that the FBI is interested in a stunningly small amount of tickets from the newly retired Tynes’s time as a judge.
Busico was quick to point out than in her final calendar year on the bench, Tynes adjudicated more than 18,000 tickets and issued more than $3 million in fines.
“And they’re complaining about the money she didn’t make?” he asked emphatically.
Defending his client’s character (and running back and forth in what was the most footwork-heavy of the six closing arguments), Busico tried to paint the 71-year-old former justice as an old woman looking to help those that could not afford to lose their licenses, rather than a corrupt magistrate attempting to defraud the government, repeatedly referencing her advanced age, as well as the men and women who came to her defense as character witnesses.
“There is a reason an elderly Jewish man from Florida calls her ‘sister!’ There is a reason a middle-aged Asian man or woman calls her ‘Mom.’ I beg of you: Don’t call her a ‘criminal.’”
With this, Tynes began to audibly sob.
However, the most emphatic defense of the day was its last: Attorney Willia McSwain, representing Chester County Magistrate Mark Bruno – accused of fixing traffic tickets for the driver of the Oasis gentlemen’s club – shouted a good deal of his argument at a bewildered and exhausted-looking jury.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to talk to you about the government’s stupid theory about this call!” McSwain bellowed, flapping a transcript of a wiretapped phone conversation between Bruno and former traffic court justice Fortunato Perri Sr. – who pled guilty to corruption charges last year – in the air. The FBI contends Bruno made the call to ask why a ticket he’d requested for “consideration” had been ruled guilty. McSwain claimed Bruno would have had enough insider information about the plot – if there was one – to avoid the need to call Perri altogether.
“The government’s theory makes no sense!”
The jury will hear the final closing argument, that of Chinatown Businessman Robert Moy, as well as the prosecution’s final rebuttal, before entering deliberation on Monday.