Chuck Turner Trial: Innocence or Arrogance?

I’ve been a trial lawyer for quite some time now. I’ve seen my share of clients who are outright innocent; guilty of a crime but legally “not guilty” due to a legal issue or procedural defect; and then those that are outright guilty. You can’t try cases from both the prosecution as well as the defense table, as I have, and not develop a keen sense of who falls into which of these categories. The skill comes with the territory.

Thus it is with this skill that I comment today on the long, strange trip of Boston city councilor Chuck Turner. The hard-to-miss Mr. Turner seems, like Diane Wilkerson, (the disgraced former state senator who pled guilty earlier this year to several federal corruption charges,) comprised of an arrogance that defies description. (Another hard-to-miss personage, you will recall Dianne Wilkerson as she belonging to the “publicly-stuffing-illegal-cash-bribes-into-her brassiere-in-a-restaurant, then-denying- it” category of arrogance. Turner was investigated by the Boston office of the FBI along with Wilkerson, as part of an undercover FBI probe into political corruption in Boston. He is now on trial in U. S. District Court in Boston, charged with extortion and counts of political corruption.

Despite videotape evidence showing a Boston businessman (Ronald Wilburn,) handing to Turner what appears to almost every reasonable observer to be a cash bribe (offered in exchange for quick approval of a city liquor license,) and despite testimony from Wilburn that he gave Turner that money as a bribe for that license, Turner has for almost two years steadfastly denied he ever took a bribe from Wilburn. To assure full disclosure, it should be noted that Wilburn was cooperating with the FBI, and was paid compensation by the FBI as part of this investigation. It should also be noted that the practice of compensating witnesses in a federal investigation is entirely legal, and has been done in several previous cases. Regardless of this arrangement being legal, as a criminal defense attorney, I don’t think it’s smart at all, as it just hands the defense a basis upon which to attack the credibility of such a witness. But that doesn’t remove the fact that Turner is on tape, and is recorded accepting cash in-hand in a tacit exchange for a liquor license.

What is it with people like Turner, who have been caught blatantly on videotape in the act of illegal, criminal acts, and yet deny those acts ever took place at all? As a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, it goes without saying that I know that every possible legal avenue of defense must be utilized on a client’s behalf. I respect those legal devices, strategies and maneuvers, and I utilize these mechanisms all the time in my practice. These technicalities deal with the detailed intricacies of law, such as whether a search and seizure was conducted according to constitutional limitations, whether or not certain testimony is admissible, and whether or not precedent exists to support a particular defense theory. That’s interesting, and laudable, advocacy.

The issue here for me (and for so many other people,) and my question to someone like Turner, is instead: “At what point can you actually look in the mirror, or show your face in public, and not feel like a complete and total fool denying what is patently obvious to anyone – and not feel, literally, like a laughing-stock?” Faced with such overwhelmingly damning visual evidence, when does the point come when someone in Turner’s position can say “I was caught right on tape. Unless there are legal grounds that can make the tape completely inadmissible, then the time has come to admit what I’ve done, make the best plea deal that I can, and try to grow from this”? If Turner (or Wilkerson before him,) had not denied doing on videotape what is so patently obvious to any rational observer, but instead argued that the tape was for whatever legal reason inadmissible, that would be one thing. That would be an intellectually and legally interesting contest.

But for both of them to deny that they ever did what is so obvious to anyone with two eyes – that’s what kills me, even as a Massachusetts defense lawyer with many years behind me. Turner is not saying, “I’m not going to admit or deny what this videotape shows, but I am claiming that the tape is inadmissible for the following legal reasons: A, B, C …” Instead, shockingly and laughably, he’s saying, “I have no memory of meeting with the person on that tape; I don’t recall who the person meeting with me is (Ronald Wilburn, the man handing him $1,000.00 in cash as a bribe,) and the tape doesn’t show me accepting any money.” Some news to Mr. Turner: The only thing that is likely to get you, is a laugh track as you’re escorted to prison. (I could be wrong about this jury, but that’s my take as of now.)

What’s even more stunning, from a defense attorney’s perspective – is Turner’s insistence (obviously, against his attorneys’ legal advice) to actually take the witness stand in his defense. Not only did his lawyers advise (read: beg) Turner not to do this, a friend of his attending the trial actually grabbed him by his coat sleeve yesterday, pleading with him to change his mind. But arrogance of this type knows no reasoning or rationale. A defendant in a criminal trial has the right to not testify or act as a witness against himself. By taking the stand yesterday and today and delivering the literally unbelievable drivel that he doesn’t ever recall the meeting with Wilburn which the tape shows, that he doesn’t recall even who Wilburn is, that he didn’t accept any money even though the tape shows cash is passed into his hand by Wilburn – Turner subjected himself to cross-examination by the prosecution. The result was, depending on whether you’re a clear-thinking person or not – either downright laughable, or downright painful. It was reported that Turner’s own lawyer sunk down in his chair as Turner took the stand, cringing at the train wreck he was powerless to stop.

If you want a glimpse at Turner’s arrogance, take a look at his political website. (I won’t link it here.) It’s introduced with a large caption of “Bald, Bold and Bright”. On it, Turner proclaims that “Despite 45 years of dedicated service to the people of my community and the people of Boston, the federal government … (is) attempt(ing) to convince the public that I am guilty of extortion of $1000 and lying to FBI officials. … I believe the trial will enable the public to recognize the unethical and immoral behavior of those who are conspiring to silence me.” Tell us: Silence you from exactly what, Chuck? God, is this pathetic. Of course, almost anyone who says this, is (as previously with Dianne Wilkerson’s case,) accused not only of being biased, but “racist.” I actually read in The Boston Globe last week, that a supporter of Turner’s actually had the temerity to justify her claims of his innocence with something directly along the lines of “He’s our Martin Luther King, Jr.” What a disgusting, perverted thing to do – to compare a moral giant like MLK Jr., to the likes of this man. What an insult to Dr. King, one of the greatest moral leaders of our century, a figure on the same level with Ghandi.

Earlier today, when Turner was entering the courthouse, he was asked by reporters if he had considered (as any sane person in his position would have done,) a plea deal. His response? “Do I look crazy to you?” Yes, Chuck, you do. You look it, you sound it, and you either are it, or you’re one of the most arrogant people alive today. And as to that website tagline, “Bald, Bold and Bright”, I’d suggest a more fitting moniker: “Dumb, Defiant, and In Denial”.

I’ve seen juries do some strange things in the past, but regardless of what verdict is returned, this whole trial has been laughable. It’s been embarrassing to watch. Don’t be surprised that I say this, even though I’m a criminal defense attorney. To quote Kenny Rogers, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em.” The time long since passed when Chuck Turner should’ve folded ’em. If this jury acts with any sanity, the only thing he’s going to be folding in the future, is bed sheets in a prison laundry.