Friday, February 25, 2005

The Dynamic Duo

The Smothers Brothers live on.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2005 at 4:00 AM

In the nearly extinct form of the comedy duo, the Smothers Brothers remain, serving as a golden-age snapshot of a stage style that could have advanced but was destroyed by dilettantes.

It's a familiar story. Like all mediums of entertainment, comedy throws away its gimmicks and styles once they stop working, and they usually stop working at the hands of subpar performers. This is why prop comedy died with Carrot Top. Examining the history of the comedy duo reveals a similar situation, and it also reveals how the Smothers Brothers, who'll be appearing Saturday at GPAC, have held on. It's a simple case of survival of the fittest.

The greats were great: The routines of the smoothly soused Dean Martin and the prat-falling man-child Jerry Lewis were family-oriented nuggets that sometimes veiled real-life hatred. The strange, satirical meanderings of Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott carried on into the 1980s for a four-decade lesson in the art of subtlety. Jim Coyle and Mal Sharpe's early-'60s confrontational audio street pranks made for poor record sales, but the prescient stunts got their rightful day via reissues in the '90s.

And while film has birthed no shortage of notable duos -- Aykroyd and Belushi, Wilder and Pryor, and Reynolds and DeLuise -- it also blueprinted the style that now gives us trainwrecks like Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon, pairings similar to that of drive-time radio rubes who have little to do with original comedy duo moxie.

And then there are the Smothers Brothers.

Tom and Dick Smothers performed in a college folk quintet before setting off as a duo in 1959. They regularly appeared on The Steve Allen Show and began releasing albums, but the brothers kept things musical and relegated the cutting-up for between-song banter. When they soon developed the bickering-siblings shtick, they fell into the ever-sturdy duo agenda of straight guy (Dick) versus half-witted, antagonistic rube (Tom). These roles were interestingly reversed in reality. Dick raced cars and shunned the entertainment industry, while Tom became vehemently involved in the business end of the brothers' career. They crafted an intelligent, clean rapport (occasionally geared directly at children) that relied on unique and precise timing -- a skill in which the brothers are usually regarded as geniuses.

The Smothers Brothers were of serious cultural importance when it came to their most popular product: the ground-breaking and troubled variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Airing on CBS from spring of 1967 until summer of 1969, the Sunday-night show tenaciously pushed boundaries throughout its entire run and was a perpetual thorn in the network's side. It stayed on by earning a strong youth audience in contrast to NBC's Bonanza. Tom was constantly battling censors and network executives for culturally and politically baiting messages, skits, and performances. Tom lost the majority of these fights. Segments that fell under the censor's knife included Harry Belafonte performing in front of footage of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, a skit featuring Elaine May that poked fun at censorship, and an ongoing tug of war to include previously blacklisted folkie Pete Seeger. One of Tom's initial goals was to make The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour hospitable to unknown performers, and it was one of the first variety shows to open its doors wide to African-American performers.

In late 1968, CBS began requiring the brothers to deliver a tape of each show for prescreening by sponsors, a then-unprecedented move in the world of variety shows. Immediately following a begrudged renewal in 1969, CBS recanted and pulled the show for good after Tom tried to rally anticensorship support at the National Broadcasters Association convention. The slot was soon filled by Hee Haw. Into the '70s, the brothers tried several times to replicate the success of the original show, but the magic was lost. Tom and Dick returned to the performing circuit, resurfacing momentarily in the late '80s with a failed reunion series.

Tom and Dick played a safe act up the success ladder, then once in power, turned the tables. They had their ups and downs, and they adapted. The Smothers Brothers now stand as the longest-running comedy duo of all time. n

The Smothers Brothers at Germantown Performing Arts Centre, February 26th

Out of the Woods

With pleasure and personality, Jill Scott has come to set neo-soul straight.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Has any musical subgenre underachieved more of late than neo-soul?

It's understandable that a sizable portion of R&B's target audience would turn against the cartoonish limitations of that music's recent perpetual-after-party vibe and instead seek a worldview that is more rounded and grounded, that reflects the diversity of experience in the listeners' daily lives. But to reject the mainstream's sleek post-disco grooves and state-of-the-art hip-hop-bred beats along with its lyrical content might be to confuse baby with bathwater.

It didn't have to be this way. Neo-soul's first and last masterpiece, D'Angelo's 2000 opus Voodoo, may not have been music to get drunk (or crunk) to, but it was built on a separate-but-equal sonic foundation, a headphone-funk classic nearly on a par with the classics of the form -- Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, Prince's Sign O' the Times, and Tricky's Maxinquaye.

But in the five long, silent years we've waited for a follow-up to Voodoo, the neo-soul genre has devolved musically, preferring draggy jazz-lite tempos and unobtrusive beats to music that might actually compete with the sometimes avant-garde-ish productions that make up the mainstream, um, alternative.

So, if neo-soul's relaxed, organic music (think: in the coffee shop with an herbal tea rather than in the club with a bottle full of bub) struggles to be heard amid the beat-mad clamor of its more mainstream counterpart, lyrical content should give it an edge, right? At its best, yes, as witnessed by the success of the witty/weird Erykah Badu and the now very-crossed-over Anthony Hamilton. But these have been exceptions. All too often, neo-soul's lyrical love paeans are as indistinct as Usher's club-bound come-ons. And in the absence of a compelling songwriting voice, who really wants to hear atmospheric health food such as Bilal or Musiq when R.Kelly's Smokey Robinson-worthy vocal melodies and Usher's Lil Jon beats are probably on the radio right now?

But in 2005, with D'Angelo still on indefinite hiatus and Badu drifting into the wilderness, neo-soul has a new standard-bearer, and it could do a lot worse than Jill Scott.

Scott's still held back by the genre's self-imposed musical limitations. Rarely on the late-2004 Beautifully Human -- see the stand-up-and-be-noticed beat of "Bedda at Home" -- does the music break free from its tasteful lite-jazz format. But it would be your loss if that kept you from attending to Scott, who is a total charmer -- a deft vocalist, light and lovely enough for straight jazz, and simply the best, most subtle songwriter in her little corner of the musical world.

Scott's verbal skills were apparent on her debut, Who Is Jill Scott?, where the spoken-word-over-jazz-accompaniment "Exclusively" was so economical, unpredictable, and precise that it might have qualified for Best Short Stories of 2000. But Scott's writing really flowers on Beautifully Human, which is also, happily, a more vocally and musically confident record.

On "The Fact Is (I Need You)," the catalog of domestic tasks she doesn't need your help with ranges from the knowing, charming cliché ("kill the spider above my bed") to the surely unspoken in love-song history ("I can even stain and polyurethane"). The sneaky "My Petition" starts out as a relationship metaphor only to gradually reveal a more literal intent. And the foolproof "Family Reunion" (see Kanye West's "Family Business") is a series of finely observed details skipping into the next until family tensions heat up so much that only a little Frankie Beverly on the stereo can cool things down.

But, though Scott's pen knows no limitations, her greatest subject might be the same primary subject of most other modern soul singers: S-E-X. You might argue that the surest path to heavy rotation for a young female singer these days is the sex instructional and assume that a neo-soul singer would try to combat this. (Of course, you might also point back through 40-something years of pop to "The Loco-Motion" and contend this is nothing new.)

But there's something righteous about Scott's refusal to cede this territory to MTV-approved lap dancers. The physics may not be as porn-star impressive as "Dip It Low," but Scott's "a poignant rocking back and forth alright" sure sounds like sex in the beautifully human real world.

Scott takes Topic A to compelling places (which Top 40 radio knows nothing of) all across Beautifully Human: The post-coital bliss of "Whatever" is as weird and real as anything Prince ever came up with, Scott's delirious declaration of appreciation ("You represented in the fashion of the truly gifted") yielding to comically desperate attempts to keep her partner from leaving. ("Do you want some money, baby?/How about some chicken wings?") The high-stepping lustiness of "Bedda at Home" is equally Prince-ly: "Your sexiness and vivacity makes me want to cook my favorite recipe/And place it on your table . . . Baby!" But the breathlessly scatting, coyly erotic "Cross My Mind" is all Scott's own: "How amazing/How amazing/When you spread my limbs across continents/Bump our bed/Way over that mountain's edge/Kiss this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and that/Show each other where the climax is at."

Musically, it may not be cutting-edge, but Scott boasts a mixture of pleasure and personality plenty strong enough to lead neo-soul out of the woods. n

Listening Log

Push the Button -- Chemical Brothers (Astralwerks): Onetime-would-be revolutionaries transformed into genre codgers (and lead-track guest vocalist Q-Tip knows just how they feel). In techno terms, call them the Beastie Boys to Basement Jaxx's Eminem -- more comfortable and reliable than bold and exciting but still pretty much getting it done. Bids for relevancy abound: Bush/Saddam connection here, Eastern riddim there. Best contemporary reference: the subtle Strokes riff weaving through the album-closing "Surface to Air." ("Believe," "Hold Tight London," "Marvo Ging")

Grade: B+

The Documentary -- The Game (Aftermath/G Unit/Interscope): West Coast gangsta rap, this year's model. A fiercer MC than mumble-mouthed mentor 50 Cent but with an equally rote worldview and lack of wit. Unintentionally revealing lyric: "I look down on ho's and up to Dre." ("Hate It or Love It," "Like Father, Like Son")

Grade: B-

Crunk Juice --Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz (TVT): After giving Usher and Petey Pablo his crossover tracks, the hottest producer of the moment decides to keep some for himself, resulting in a record at least slightly more accessible to crunk novices than the previous Kings of Crunk. But the most memorable moments here are still among the most outré. There's nothing as overwhelming as "Get Low," Kings of Crunk's megaton bomb of rhythm and noise (I know, there's little in the history of recorded sound that matches the steam-rolling rhythmic complexity of "Get Low"), but the album is better overall. And even though there are more than a few heinous lyrics beneath these chaotic productions, there's also a self-implicating cartoonishness that takes the edge off crunk's belligerent misogyny. With Chris Rock and David Chappelle soundbites underscoring the intentional self-parody at the core, the result is kind of like a Redd Foxx album with body-rocking beats. ("Stop F***in Wit Me," "In Da Club," "Stick Dat Thang Out")

Grade: B+

Totally Country Vol. 4 -- Various Artists (Sony/BMG): For years now, most music fans have sniffed at mainstream country, the plasticity and downright hokiness of the genre as much a given as the soundalike, cookie-cutter quality of the Nashville studio machine. This brand of cultural superiority has always been ill-informed but never so much as over the last couple of years. The genre has emerged into a pop scene as interesting and diverse as anything you can find across your radio dial. Just check out volume four of this ongoing singles comp. It's essentially the country equivalent of the Top 40 Now series: redneck-rock meets calypso-and-western meets pedal-steel-fueled singalong meets Hallmark condescension meets unbearable yellow-ribbon weepie meets perfect pop-country meets perfectly awful easy-listening country meets Big & Rich's better-than-Beck multigenre crash derby. All together in an ever-expanding big-tent view of country music that you ignore at your own loss. ("Redneck Woman" -- Gretchen Wilson, "Save a Horse" -- Big & Rich, "Perfect" --Sara Evans) n --

Grade: B+

The Devil's in the Details

Unlike fiction, real-life crime scenarios don't always fall neatly into place.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Dr. O.C. Smith is on the ropes after taking a series of punishing shots from federal prosecutors and might have to take the stand himself to win his case.

The final piece of the prosecution's evidence, presented Friday before the three-day weekend, was a three-hour videotape of Smith being interviewed and then gently grilled by U.S. attorney Pat Harris and two investigators. The defense began presenting its case Tuesday.

The most damning thing about the tape, which was made on September 11, 2003, is that Smith changes a key part of his story about the alleged attack on him on June 1, 2002. Instead of the attacker reaching for a strand of barbed wire and tying Smith's feet first and then his hands, the attacker ties Smith's hands first in this version.

In statements given to authorities 15 months earlier on the day after the attack and on July 26, 2002, Smith says the attacker "sat with his weight on the small of my back and backside and gathered my leg by grabbing my ankle and bending them at the knees. He crossed my ankle right over left with one arm and wrapped my lower legs and ankle with the wire. ... He let my feet go and turned on the top of me to wrap my right hand and left hand with separate strand [sic]."

On the 2003 tape, Smith is asked by Harris what the attacker tied first.

"My hands and then my feet," Smith says. Then he stammers for several seconds when Harris asks if the right hand or left hand was tied first. "He's wrapping my right and then he's wrapping my left, but I don't know how he does it."

The change in Smith's story was a dead giveaway to investigators who had already concluded that Smith was lying. Cops are taught "hands are what hurt you," testified Paul Kwiatkowski, a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent specially trained in no-holds-barred fighting. If the attacker had tied the feet first, he would have been facing backward and a simple push-up by Smith -- a physical-fitness buff who claims to have taught Marines how to kill an enemy at close range -- would have either bucked him off or made it nearly impossible to tie his kicking feet with barbed wire.

"You're either an absolute wuss or you gave up," the rugged-looking Kwiatkowski tells Smith at one point on the tape.

The assumption is that even with an acid solution in his eyes, Smith would have his wits about him and would remember how his attacker had him pinned and whether his hands or feet were tied first. In fact, in his first two accounts, he is clear on the point that his feet were tied first. In addition to that inconsistency, Smith's stories have other flaws.

In one account, Smith sees the attacker quite clearly, describes his clothing, and even thinks he might be able to pick him out of a police lineup. In another, the attacker is just a shadow before splashing a caustic solution from a plastic bottle in Smith's face, all but blinding the 49-year-old doctor for the rest of the attack.

The attacker, alternately described as weighing 170 pounds or 200 pounds, is alone and does not threaten Smith with a gun or knife or beat him with a weapon of any kind. Smith, who usually carries a handgun and a knife, is unarmed on this night.

Neither Smith nor the attacker utters so much as a curse word or a cry for help during the entire attack. They come to grips, "frog march" down a flight of stairs, fall to the ground, and wrestle until Smith is lying face down and the attacker is sitting on the small of his back without either man making a sound louder than a grunt. Smith kicks out and swings and misses, and the attacker strikes him on the back of the head with his elbow, again in silence.

By the time the attacker speaks, he has subdued Smith, kept him under control by simply sitting on him, reached for a stash of barbed wire, tied his feet, hands, and head without leaving so much as a drop of blood, lifted him up to a standing position, padlocked him face-first to a window grate in a crucified position, and put a bomb over his head. Only then does he whisper: "Push it, pull it, twist it, and you die. Welcome to death row." Then he simply walks away into the hot night.

Smith is so focused on the pain that he is unaware that a University of Tennessee Medical Center police officer is checking the parking lot in his car and on foot a short time later. When a second cop comes by -- Smith says "it felt like three seconds or three years" -- he bangs the lock holding his left hand to the bars and is discovered and rescued.

Four hours later, he checks out of the hospital and goes to his office. The next day, he is back at work, albeit with a bright red rash on the right side of his face which wasn't apparent in the hours after the attack. Such is the story, or stories, that the jury has heard.

Smith is charged with two counts of lying and one count of unlawful possession of a bomb -- the one around his neck. Casual followers of this case may be tempted to take the NBA referee's position "No Harm, No Foul" since Smith was unhurt and the bomb did not go off. But there are good reasons for pursuing this prosecution and better ones for punishing Smith if he is found guilty.

The bomb was the real deal. The jury has been shown detailed depictions of its components (shot, powder, a battery, and a triggering mechanism) and assemblage. Cops said it could have killed people. In one of the trial's most dramatic moments, a gutsy former Memphis cop named Mike Willis, commander of the bomb squad in 2002, described how he and two other guys got the bomb off of Smith. Willis grabbed the bomb while a colleague cut the barbed wire. "Once I had a hold of it, I'm not letting go," said Willis.

He gently placed the bomb on a blue plastic barrel someone brought over. For a heart-stopping second, it rolled on top of the barrel, but it didn't go off.

Willis, Smith, and two other police officers could have been killed or maimed if Willis had not been so sure-handed or if someone had accidentally kicked over the barrel.

Then there is the matter of the 15-month investigation leading up to the interview on September 11, 2003. To many cops, investigators, and prosecutors in Memphis and Shelby County, Smith was "our doc," a stand-up guy who would come to a crime scene in the middle of a cold, wet night and testified for them at hundreds of trials.

U.S. attorney Terry Harris, who recused himself and the Western District of Tennessee office from the Smith case, worked with Smith for 14 years when Harris was a Shelby County prosecutor. On June 3, 2002, Harris called a meeting of virtually every local, state, and federal law enforcement agency with manpower in Memphis to tell them that finding the Smith attacker was his "number-one priority." A total of 17 agencies followed up 112 leads before coming to the reluctant conclusion that Smith did it to himself. The cost of such an investigation and 24/7 protection for Smith and his wife in dollars and manpower was substantial at a time when the country was on terrorism alert.

In an unusual bit of courtroom drama, Harris was called to the witness stand last week to explain why his office was recused. He wound up testifying for several minutes about the transformation of Smith from victim to suspect, thanks in part to some inopportune questioning from defense attorney Jim Garts which opened the door for prosecutor Bud Cummins to allow Harris to essentially become a bonus witness for the government.

Harris seemed highly credible. In contrast to some of the government's expert medical witnesses, the prosecutor spoke confidently but slowly and softly and used simple language. As Harris took the stand, Smith gave him a little wave. Harris said he considers Smith "a personal friend" and "part of law enforcement, certainly." Harris came to the crime scene within hours of the attack, but Smith was already at the hospital, so Harris and an agent drove to Smith's house in Atoka at 6 o'clock that morning. "I was afraid he was going to be in much worse condition," said Harris. "I was relieved to see he was not in terrible shape."

Harris said it was a routine part of the early stage of the investigation to eliminate Smith as a suspect, although he did not say exactly how that was done or whether, as seems likely, some investigators suspected Smith from the get-go. A consensus opinion wasn't reached for several months. It was based, Harris said, on several things, including Smith's superficial wounds, his lack of resistance, the absence of tears in his clothing, and inconsistencies in his stories.

Compared to celebrity expert witness Dr. Park Dietz, who testified later that morning about various mental disorders in staged crimes, Harris was a hammer, Dietz a feather.

In fictional mysteries, movies, and television shows, an omniscient narrator or super-sleuth wraps up all the loose ends in a neat package. That's not going to happen in this case, as prosecutors have admitted ever since Smith was indicted. If Smith staged the attack, his motives can only be guessed at based on the testimony of former colleagues, who said Smith resented criticism and told tall tales, and experts such as Dietz, who did not examine Smith.

Novelists and screenwriters ask readers for "the willing suspension of disbelief" for the sake of entertainment. In the Smith case, prosecutors are asking a jury to leave a few details of this mystery unsolved for the sake of justice.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

CITY BEAT

CITY BEAT

Posted By on Wed, Feb 23, 2005 at 4:00 AM

THE DEVIL'S IN THE DETAILS Dr. O. C. Smith is on the ropes after taking a series of punishing shots from federal prosecutors and might have to take the stand himself to win his case.

The final piece of the prosecution's evidence, presented Friday before the three-day weekend, was a three-hour videotape of Smith being interviewed and then gently grilled by United States Attorney Pat Harris and two investigators. The defense began presenting its case Tuesday.

The most damning thing about the tape, which was made on September 11, 2003, is that Smith changes a key part of his story about the alleged attack on him on June 1, 2002. Instead of the attacker reaching for a strand of barbed wire and tying Smith's feet first and then his hands, the attacker ties Smith's hands first in this version.

In statements given to authorities 15 months earlier on the day after the attack and on July 26, 2002, Smith says the attacker "sat with his weight on the small of my back and backside and gathered my leg by grabbing my ankle and bending them at the knees. He crossed my ankle right over left with one arm and wrapped my lower legs and ankle with the wire. ... He let my feet go and turned on the top of me to wrap my right hand and left hand with separate strand (sic)."

But on the 2003 tape, Smith is asked by Harris what the attacker tied first.

"My hands and then my feet," Smith says. Then he stammers for several seconds when Harris asks if the right hand or left hand was tied first. "He's wrapping my right and then he's wrapping my left, but I don't know how he does it."

The change in Smith's story was a dead giveaway to investigators who had already concluded that Smith was lying. Cops are taught "hands are what hurt you," testified Paul Kwiatkowski, a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent specially trained in no-holds-barred fighting. If the attacker had tied the feet first, he would have been facing backwards and a simple push-up by Smith a physical fitness buff who claims to have taught Marines how to kill an enemy at close range would have either bucked him off or made it nearly impossible to tie his kicking feet with barbed wire.

"You're either an absolute wuss or you gave up," the rugged-looking Kwiatkowski tells Smith at one point on the tape.

The assumption is that even with an acid solution in his eyes, Smith would have his wits about him and would remember how his attacker had him pinned and whether his hands or feet were tied first. In fact, in his first two accounts he is clear on the point that his feet were tied first. In addition to that inconsistency, Smith's stories have other flaws.

In one account, Smith sees the attacker quite clearly, describes his clothing and even thinks he might be able to pick him out of a police lineup. In another, the attacker is just a shadow before splashing a caustic solution from a plastic bottle in Smith's face, all but blinding the 49-year-old doctor for the rest of the attack.

The attacker, alternately described as weighing 170 pounds or 200 pounds, is alone and does not threaten Smith with a gun or knife or beat him with a club of any kind. Smith, who usually carries a handgun and a knife, is conveniently unarmed on this night.

Neither Smith nor the attacker utters so much as a curse word or a cry for help during the entire attack. They come to grips, "frog march" down a flight of stairs, fall to the ground, and wrestle until Smith is lying face down and the attacker is sitting on the small of his back without either man making a sound louder than a grunt. Smith kicks out and swings and misses, and the attacker bops him on the back of his head with his elbow, again in silence.

By the time the attacker speaks, he has subdued Smith, kept him under control by simply sitting on him, reached for a stash of barbed wire, tied his feet, hands, and head without leaving so much as a drop of blood, lifted him up to a standing position, padlocked him face-first to a window grate in a crucified position, and put a bomb over his head. Only then does he whisper: "Push it, pull it, twist it, and you die. Welcome to death row." Then he simply walks away into the hot night.

Smith is so focused on the pain that he is unaware that a University of Tennessee Medical Center police officer is checking the parking lot in his car and on foot a short time later. When a second cop comes by Smith says "it felt like three seconds or three years" he bangs the lock holding his left hand to the bars and is discovered and rescued.

Four hours later, he checks out of the hospital and goes back to his office. The next day, he is back at work, albeit with a bright red rash on the right side of his face that wasn't apparent in the hours after the attack. Such is the story, or stories, that the jury has heard.

Smith is charged with two counts of lying and one count of unlawful possession of a bomb the one around his neck. Casual followers of this case may be tempted to take the NBA referee's position "No Harm, No Foul" since Smith was unhurt and the bomb did not go off. But there were good reasons for pursuing this prosecution and better ones for punishing Smith if he is found guilty.

The bomb was the real deal. The jury has been shown detailed depictions of its components (shot, powder, a battery, and a triggering mechanism) and assemblage. Cops said it could have killed people. In one of the trial's most dramatic moments, a gutsy former Memphis cop named Mike Willis, commander of the bomb squad in 2002, described how he and two other guys got the bomb off of Smith. Willis grabbed the bomb while a colleague cut the barbed wire.

"Once I had a hold of it, I'm not letting go," said Willis.

He gently placed the bomb on a blue plastic barrel someone brought over. For a heart-stopping second, it rolled a little bit in an indentation in the top of the barrel, but it didn't go off. Then Willis got out of there.

Willis, Smith, and two other police officers could have been killed or maimed if Willis had not been so sure-handed or if someone had accidentally kicked over the barrel.

Then there is the matter of the 15-month investigation leading up to the interview on September 11, 2003. Smith was not some homeless person, drunk, or someone violently resisting arrest ala Rodney King. Nor was he a convenient scapegoat like security guard Richard Jewell, wrongly accused of planting a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. To many cops, investigators and prosecutors in Memphis and Shelby County, Smith was "our doc," a stand-up guy who would come to a crime scene in the middle of a cold, wet night and testified for them at hundreds of trials.

U.S. Attorney Terry Harris, who recused himself and the Western District of Tennessee office from the Smith case, worked with Smith for 14 years when Harris was a Shelby County prosecutor. On June 3, 2002, Harris called a meeting of virtually every local, state, and federal law enforcement agency with manpower in Memphis to tell them that finding the Smith attacker was his "number-one priority." A total of 17 agencies followed up 112 leads before coming to the reluctant conclusion that Smith did it to himself. The cost of such an investigation and 24/7 protection for Smith and his wife in dollars and manpower was substantial at a time when the country was on terrorism alert.

In an unusual bit of courtroom drama, Harris was called to the witness stand last week to explain why his office was recused. He wound up testifying for several minutes about the transformation of Smith from victim to suspect, thanks in part to some inopportune questioning from defense attorney Jim Garts that opened the door for prosecutor Bud Cummins to allow Harris to essentially become a bonus witness for the government.

Harris seemed highly credible. In contrast to some of the government's expert medical witnesses, the boyish-looking prosecutor spoke confidently but slowly and softly and used simple words. As Harris took the stand, Smith gave him a little wave. Harris said he considers Smith "a personal friend" and "part of law enforcement, certainly." Harris came to the crime scene within hours of the attack, but Smith was already at the hospital, so Harris and an agent drove to Smith's house in Atoka at six o'clock that morning.

"I was afraid he was going to be in much worse condition," said Harris. "I was relieved to see he was not in terrible shape."

Harris said it was a routine part of the early stage of the investigation to eliminate Smith as a suspect, although he did not say exactly how that was done or whether, as seems likely, some investigators suspected Smith from the get-go. A consensus opinion wasn't reached for several months. It was based, Harris said, on several things including Smith's superficial wounds, his lack of resistance, the lack of tears in his clothing, and inconsistencies in his stories.

Compared to celebrity expert witness Dr. Park Dietz, who testified later that morning about various mental disorders in staged crimes, Harris was a hammer, Dietz a feather.

In fictional mysteries, movies, and television shows, an omniscient narrator or super sleuth Matlock, Marlowe, Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade wraps up all the loose ends in a neat package. That's not going to happen in this case, as prosecutors have admitted ever since Smith was indicted. If Smith staged the attack, his motives can only be guessed at based on the testimony of former colleagues who said he resented criticism and told tall tales and experts such as Dietz, who did not examine Smith.

Novelists and screenwriters ask readers for "the willing suspension of disbelief" for the sake of entertainment. In the Smith case, prosecutors are asking a jury to leave a few details of this mystery unsolved for the sake of justice.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Family Fun

The medical examiner's trial spawns a mystery game for all ages.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 18, 2005 at 4:00 AM

It's fun! It's educational! It's Parker Brothers' new mystery game, "O.C. SMitH, MeDiCAl EXaMIner." Winners get a sample of barbed wire and a subpoena.

A skilled mystery writer would have this story end with A) Smith's conviction, B) Smith's acquittal, or C) nothing: the plot is too far-fetched.

The initials JMJ stand for A) Jesus, Mary and Joseph, B) Jolly Michael Jackson, or C) CWC upside down.

Smith's attacker was A) a 25-ish fleshy man weighing about 170 pounds, B) a 40-ish man weighing about 200 pounds, or C) Colonel Mustard in the library with a lead pipe.

In the fight for his life in the stairwell, Smith was A) tougher than a combat-experienced Navy Seal, B) easier to subdue than your great-aunt Eunice, or C) throwing desperate haymakers at himself.

The overwrought piety and self-important tone of the mysterious letters suggest the author was A) a Catholic anti-abortion zealot, B) a fundamentalist death-penalty zealot, or C) Andy Wise or Wendi Thomas.

The misspellings and curious use of capital letters suggest the author is A) deranged, B) an e-mail spammer, or C) a Memphis high school graduate.

The pictures of Smith post-attack look like A) a commercial for Clearasil, B) a man splashed with lye, or C) a typical 1963 high school graduation picture.

The large number of female witnesses in the trial shows A) forensics is an equal opportunity field, B) women really can do math and science, or C) Smith was getting more than Frank Sinatra in his prime.

The phrase "rendered safe" means that A) a bomb has been fixed so it won't blow up, B) your teenaged daughter is home with the flu, or C) Willie Herenton has had a vasectomy.

The barbed-wire headgear worn by Smith resembles A) Hannibal Lecter's mask, B) a crown of thorns, or C) a birthday present for John Ford.

The scars on O. C. Smith's chest came from A) machine gun fire, B) a knife attack in hand-to-hand combat, or C) a breast reduction.

The involvement of the Mike Fleming radio program in the case is evidence of A) the importance of talk radio, B) a red herring, or C) great news for Mike Fleming.

Two weeks after the attack, Smith and a female French anthropologist went to Lyons, France, to A) study 19th-century manuscripts, B) unwind and craft an alibi, or C) drink wine and make whoopee.

The phrase "frog-march" describes A) Smith's attacker forcing him to the stairwell, B) Navy Seal hazing, or C) a drum-and-bugle team in Lyons.

Smith's description of his attacker is what you would expect from A) a veteran forensic pathologist with keen powers of observation, B) a man punched and doused with lye, or C) a cross-eyed drunk with an Etch-A-Sketch.

Smith rappelled down a bridge to get to a dead body because he was A) showboating, B) didn't want to get his pants wet, or C) wanted to try out his new rope.

The cost of protecting Smith and his wife 24/7 for months with TACT officers was A) $1 million, B) $10 million, or C) a big waste of money.

A barbed-wire bit like the one on Smith would look good on A) a terrorist, B) a cranky horse, or C) some members of the Memphis City Council.

The presence of Super Glue on the back of the bomb on Smith's chest indicates A) the attacker was serious, B) the stuff doesn't work well, or C) product placement.

"Push it, pull it, twist it" is A) a way to trigger a motion-sensitive bomb, B) a child's toy, or C) a male impotence remedy.

"Factitious victimization" is A) a mental disorder, B) psychobabble, or C) a great way for an expert witness to make a few thousand bucks.

Smith's conviction will show that A) justice is blind, B) the "attacker" theory was ridiculous, or C) a jury will believe anything.

Smith's acquittal will show that A) our judicial system works, B) the "he did it himself" theory was ridiculous, or C) a jury will believe anything.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Why Didn't You Shoot The Guy?

Testimony begins in the trial of former medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 11, 2005 at 4:00 AM

In addition to mystery, violence, barbed wire, bombs, and bizarre religious overtones, the federal case against former Shelby County medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith has its own name: factitious victimization.

In layman's language, that means making up a story in which you are the victim. Prosecutors think that's what Smith did when he was supposedly attacked on June 2, 2002, outside his office. On Tuesday, they gave the jury a preview of what's to come, including pictures of Smith wrapped in barbed wire, videotaped excerpts of Smith talking to investigators and prosecutors, and a parade of dueling expert witnesses.

Smith, 52, is charged with unlawful possession of a bomb and making two false statements to investigators about his "attack." U.S. attorney Bud Cummins, who normally works out of Little Rock but took the case because the Memphis office recused itself, told the jury Smith told investigators his alleged attacker taunted him after putting a motion-sensitive bomb over his head and chaining him to a window grate:

"Push it, pull it, twist it and you die. Welcome to death row."

Bomb specialists delicately lifted the device -- a can containing explosives and wax -- and disabled it with a powerful blast from a water hose. The jury saw pictures of Smith, wearing blue hospital scrubs, lying on a hospital bed a few hours later with strands of barbed wire still wrapped around his head. Other pictures showed bright red sores or bruises on the right side of his face, purportedly from having a lye solution thrown in his face twice by the assailant. He also had small scars on his leg and chest, but prosecutors said the damage would have been worse if Smith really tangled with an angry attacker.

One of the things that led them to suspect Smith of staging the attack, in fact, was Smith's rugged appearance, familiarity with weapons, and military background. Cummins suggested the alleged attacker "got awful lucky that night" because Smith, according to his own account, did not resist beyond swinging at him and missing.

"Why didn't you shoot the guy?" investigators asked Smith, known to many of them as a colleague and gun-toting tough guy with a knife in his high black boots.

Cummins said Smith told them he had left his gun on his coffee table at home.

Finding the assailant was the number-one priority of Memphis federal prosecutors in the summer of 2002, less than a year after the terrorist attacks in New York. Seventeen law-enforcement agencies followed up on 112 leads, according to prosecutors. All ultimately led to the "reluctant conclusion" that Smith wasn't telling the truth, Cummins said.

"We won't prove what actually happened that night," said Cummins. "We don't have to prove a motive."

Still, Cummins introduced the jury to the term "factitious victimization," which he called "a mental disorder." He warned that the government will be introducing some "unflattering" evidence about Smith's personal life in the trial expected to last two or three weeks.

Smith's attorney, Jim Garts, said "a picture is worth a thousand words, and you're asked to believe that Dr. Smith did this to himself" as he flashed a photograph of Smith's red and swollen face hours after the incident.

"Nothing links Dr. Smith to this crime even though they've made every effort to do it," Garts said, adding that the case "is built on the power of suggestion."

The jury of eight women and four men appeared intently interested in the eye-opening statements and photographs. Smith, wearing a light-colored suit, still wears his trademark short haircut and frequently takes notes.

In yet another strange twist, the first witness called to the stand was Robert Hutton, an attorney who less than a week ago was in a different federal courtroom in the same building defending football booster Logan Young Jr. in another highly publicized case. Hutton also represented convicted cop-killer Philip Workman. The Smith yarn began with three strange letters to Hutton, Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons, and Commercial Appeal reporter Larry Buser in 2001, in which references were made to the Workman case and Smith -- as in, "the evil one is in the body of Dr. O.C. Smith, soulless pawn of the devil." Smith, on his own initiative, gave testimony supporting Workman's conviction at a clemency hearing.

Buser, a veteran courtroom reporter, was also called as a witness but had not testified by press time Tuesday. U.S. District Court judge Bernice Donald ruled that a news story Buser wrote about Smith in 1998 would not be allowed into evidence.

Smith served in the Navy and joined the medical examiner's office in 1983 as an assistant. He was named chief medical examiner in 2000.

Misery Loves Company

Herenton knows some of the players in federal probes in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Baltimore.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 11, 2005 at 4:00 AM

If Mayor Willie Herenton gets weary of being a target, he can read about federal investigations in at least three other cities that involve individuals and companies he knows.

In Philadelphia, an investigation of corrupt practices at city hall, including minority-participation deals, has been going on for more than two years. Last week, an investment banker was acquitted on charges stemming from a probe of bond deals involving firms including J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, two Wall Street firms that helped underwrite the MLGW-TVA bond deal and FedExForum.

The FBI bugged the Philadelphia mayor's office, but the bug was discovered. The investigation was further hampered when the mayor's power-broker, who was a central figure in the allegations, died of cancer. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote Sunday that "this probe still is giving people a detailed, distressing glimpse of a pay-to-play culture" and "federal prosecutors will forge ahead in courtrooms in 2005."

In Atlanta, former Mayor Bill Campbell is under indictment on racketeering and bribery charges. Campbell, who was mayor from 1994 to 2002, is accused of trading city contracts for illegal campaign contributions, free travel, and cash to support his gambling trips to Tunica and other locations.

The middleman in one of the deals was Reginald French, a former aide to Herenton who runs a political consulting firm and is head of the Memphis Alcohol Commission. French, who was not charged in the case, testified during a trial last year that he passed $10,000 from an Atlanta contractor to Atlanta city officials. Prosecutors said the two officials also came to Memphis to urge Herenton to hire the contractor, but Herenton turned them down. Both officials were convicted last August.

In Baltimore, a money manager named Nathan A. Chapman Jr. was convicted last year on federal charges of defrauding Maryland's retirement system and looting his own firm. Last month, he was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison and ordered to pay $5 million in restitution. Chapman was one of the managers of the city of Memphis pension fund from 1996 to 2002, according to city finance director Charles Williamson. He was terminated when his $74 million portfolio failed to match the performance of its peer group.
"We did not lose any money," said Williamson.

One of the witnesses against Chap-man was his former employee, Tracey Rancifer Henderson. Testifying under a grant of immunity, she said she had a sexual relationship with Chapman and received "bonus" payments from a business development account but lied about it to a federal grand jury in 2002.

Henderson is a graduate of Rhodes College who briefly served on Herenton's staff in the mid-1990s. The Flyer has filed an open-records request with the city to get her exact dates of employment, age, title, and salary, but it had not been answered at press time. She joined Chapman's company in 1998 to handle Tennessee government investment accounts.

Herenton says reporters are encroaching on his personal space. Since 1982, I have covered three city mayors -- Wyeth Chandler, Dick Hackett, and Herenton -- and three county mayors -- Bill Morris, Jim Rout, and A C Wharton. At one time or another, reporters either delicately handled or backed off "personal" stories about all six mayors or their families. Herenton has pushed the envelope. Three examples:

Herenton's frequent female companion for 15 years has been Joyce Kelly. For at least 10 years, Kelly was referred to in news stories as the mayor's "fiancée." Herenton is single and can see anyone he wants, but 10 years is one long engagement.

Herenton is co-developer of Baneker Estates, the upscale South Memphis subdivision where he lives. As far as is publicly known, his role is passive. But subdivisions need city permits and inspections and services. Some might say a mayor who is also a developer has an inherent conflict of interest.

Herenton's son, Rodney, has worked in public finance for Morgan Keegan and First Tennessee (now First Horizon), both of which do business with the city of Memphis. That potential conflict of interest would not be tolerated by many corporations and could be eliminated if Rodney Herenton worked in another line of work or in another city.

Friday, February 4, 2005

CSI Memphis

Former county medical examiner O.C. Smith goes from sleuth to suspect.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 4, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Next up in the continuing chronicles of rowdy Memphis: "CSI Memphis," the curious case of the bombed-and-bound medical examiner, wherein former Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith plays the suspect instead of the sleuth.

Smith goes on trial in federal court on February 7th, 31 months after he told police he was attacked outside his office by an unknown person who threw something in his face, wrapped him in razor wire, and placed a bomb around his neck. Investigators concluded that Smith staged the attack. He was indicted last February 10th. Now federal prosecutors face the difficult task of explaining to a jury, at least in a general way, how and perhaps why he did it.

"The United States, through more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies, has investigated approximately 112 leads in this case to substantiate the allegation by the defendant ... . Those 112 investigative leads had led to one conclusion, which is the defendant was not attacked by an unknown assailant. The defendant orchestrated and carried out this 'alleged attack' either by himself or with the aid of someone unknown to the United States," according to a government brief filed last year.

Court filings indicate that Smith, whose close-cropped haircut and authoritative testimony have made him a familiar courthouse figure in hundreds of criminal trials, has considered pleading guilty in exchange for leniency but was unable to make a deal.

"The government concedes that defendant and the United States attorney discussed a plea, making that portion of defendant's statement inadmissible," says a brief recapping a critical four-hour interview of Smith on September 11, 2003.

Smith's attorneys have argued that his entire statement on that day is inadmissible, since it was made during plea negotiations.

U.S. district judge Bernice Donald has ruled that part of the September 11th interview can be admitted, and she declined to dismiss the indictment. She will rule this week on a government motion to allow Dr. Park Dietz to testify as an expert witness. Dietz is something of a celebrity because of his testimony in several high-profile cases, including those of John Hinckley, the Unabomber, and the "Son of Sam." One of the many areas of expertise listed on Dietz' Web site is staged crimes.

In a brief, Smith said that on September 11, 2003, he was called by an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to come to the federal building so agents could "show me some things."

"I was taken to a room with one chair backed up to a counter, facing three more chairs arranged in a semi-circle about the first char," Smith said in the brief. "I initially thought the investigators had obtained new information concerning the (then) recent bomb incident in Erie, Pennsylvania, (which seemed possibly similar to my attack) and/or they were going to show me photo spreads of possible assailants."

Smith was given his Miranda rights and questioned by ATF agents and, at times, by assistant U.S. attorney from Little Rock, Patrick Harris, acting as special prosecutor because Memphis U.S. attorney Terry Harris had recused himself.

According to a transcript of the interview, Harris expressed disbelief in Smith's story and said, "You've just gotten yourself in a bad spot. It's just getting worse. It's, you know, you ought to just be as honest as you can, just cut your losses, and move on, because this has gotten messy and you did it yourself."

Agents continued to press Smith until he said, "You keep asking me for things. Now I'm thinking, you know, what would a lawyer tell me to do right now? Stop here? Talk to you? Tell you what I think we can do? Or just sit there, sit down, and shut up, don't confess or do anything?"

An agent asked Smith, "What would be a scenario that you would like to see this come out?"

"I would like you to find the individual responsible," Smith said.

"You said it yourself the last time we talked," said the agent. "This is a guy that we could offer him help."

"Yeah," said Smith.

"I think we can do that," said the agent.

"What sort of help would that man need?" asked Smith.

"You just said yourself, I'm not a doctor, I don't know," said the agent.

"Yeah," said Smith. "Well, what I'm saying is it would be wonderful."

Later, another agent told Smith that he might still face criminal charges but "nobody is looking to nail you to the wall again. Okay. We just want to resolve it."

Barring further developments, that resolution begins next week.

Mano a Mano

"Less is more" seems to be the strategy for both sides in the Logan Young trial.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 4, 2005 at 4:00 AM

By midday Monday, it was apparent that Logan Young was about as likely to take the witness stand as he is to lead the University of Tennessee band in Rocky Top.

Once upon a time, prosecutors and defendants faced one another mano a mano in dramatic courtroom confrontations. Now we get accountants, bank clerks, and the thrilling sight of Young accuser Lynn Lang briefly reentering the courtroom, folding his massive arms across his massive chest, and staring across the courtroom at the witness box into the unblinking eyes of ... Young's 67-year-old female housekeeper.

It's been that kind of trial. The Super Bowl of Sleaze has featured brief moments of action interrupted by long recesses and mind-numbing bench conferences that make a City Council meeting seem thrilling. On Monday, the defense team's Hail Mary motion for acquittal fell incomplete, and Young's fate and liberty are now in the hands of the jury.

Young is in a jam because of his own words and actions, which may or may not include paying $150,000 to Lang. He was officially indicted by a federal grand jury but unofficially indicted (and already convicted) by The Commercial Appeal and football fans on the Internet, where the trash talk has been going on for more than four years. If he gets off, it will be an O.J. acquittal in many eyes. Jurors will have the final word, but until they do, let's see what lawyers say that might shed some light on this case.

A book called Sponsorship Strategy by Robert Klonoff and Paul Colby, published in 1999, is popular in some legal circles. The authors, who have experience as both prosecutors and defense attorneys, argue that "less is more" in criminal trials and "Keep it simple, stupid" is good advice. The point: Don't over-prove your point.

Writing in the Texas Tech Law Review, another lawyer, Bill Allison, said, "There is a phenomenon at work in the minds of jurors that says, when you start putting on multiple witnesses to prove the same point, you must have some doubt about that point."

Neither the prosecutors nor the defense attorneys in the Young trial have talked to the media, so their strategy can only be guessed at. But "less is more" seems to be the rule for both sides. In the media and on the Internet, of course, it's just the opposite. More is more. More rumors, more names, more links to other rumors and names. Lang sidekick Milton Kirk, recruiting analyst Tom Culpepper, Internet pundit Roy Adams (aka Tennstud), and NCAA investigator Rich Johanningmeier are household names. But none of them testified at Young's trial.

Nor did representatives of most of the seven schools that talked to Lang about obtaining the services of Albert Means. Alabama athletic director Mal Moore was barely on the witness stand for 10 minutes and skated through his testimony. Memphis high school coaches Tim Thompson and Wayne Randall were subpoenaed by the defense but did not testify. Newsweek journalist Richard Ernsberger, who deserves more credit than he has gotten locally for his reporting about Lang and Means, testified for approximately two minutes about a single line in his book, Bragging Rights. He wrote that Lang told him, "Logan Young? I've heard his name. But that's all I know about him."

Former University of Memphis coach Rip Scherer made a cameo appearance to deny promising Lang's wife a free law school education. Scherer said he earned $250,000 a year, or less than half the compensation of his successor, Tommy West, whose star defensive lineman for the last three years was Means. Former Georgia coach Jim Donnan also testified, denying that he paid Lang $700 cash but also blurting out "not enough" when asked how much he got paid at Georgia. It turned out that he made $700,000 one year, possibly as much as the entire jury put together.

Other witnesses for both sides were also brief, possibly because their testimony was so suspect. Former Alabama assistant coach Ivy Williams, a defense witness, was dreadful. He denied talking about Means in more than 200 conversations with Young. Alleged middleman Melvin Earnest, nicknamed "Botto," denied driving Lang to Young's house but admitted being friends with Young for more than 20 years and "borrowing" money from him. Did he pay it back? "Not all of it, most of it," he testified.

The defense witness who got the most face time in front of the jury was Young's accountant, David Pearson. Attorneys methodically led him through a series of Young cash withdrawals and Lang cash deposits. The amounts never matched, but there was, prosecutors noted, "time correlation."

"Follow the money" is the prosecution's advice to the jury. If the jury finds the money trail as murky as the testimony, Young will walk.

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