When former state senator Roscoe Dixon goes on trial this week, he may draw some lessons from the most famous political corruption trial in recent Memphis history.
Charged with bribery, Dixon is the first of the Memphis defendants to stand trial in Operation Tennessee Waltz. Jury selection began Tuesday in federal court, with opening statements expected on Wednesday. Dixons fate could influence the thinking of other defendants, including Michael Hooks, Kathryn Bowers, Calvin Williams, and John Ford.
The trial is the most closely watched political corruption trial in Memphis since 1993, when former congressman Harold Ford Sr., the brother of John Ford, was found not guilty on federal bank-fraud charges. It was the culmination of a 10-year investigation by federal prosecutors of Ford and the banking empire of brothers Jake and C.H. Butcher Jr. of Knoxville. Ford was actually tried twice, but the first trial in 1990 ended in a mistrial because of juror misconduct.
Although the cases are different, Dixon and his attorneys face some of the same circumstances that confronted Ford 13 years ago: extensive pretrial publicity and media coverage, racial overtones, an experienced team of prosecutors led by assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza (who was not involved in the Ford trial although he was on the staff at the time), and the decision about whether or not to let Dixon take the stand.
No one made better news copy than Harold Ford when he was under attack. After he was indicted, he accused U.S. attorney Hickman Ewing, then head of the office for Western Tennessee, of leading a political vendetta. The two men exchanged sharp words in a parking lot of the federal building, although they never squared off in the courtroom because Ewing assistant Dan Clancy tried the case.
Ford played to his constituents, insisting that having the trial in Knoxville instead of Memphis would eliminate prospective black jurors. When the trial was moved to Memphis, he kept up the pressure. The jury for the first trial included eight blacks and four whites. After testimony was completed and jurors had begun their deliberations, presiding judge Odell Horton declared a mistrial because juror contact with the defense team had made a mockery of justice.
Jurors for the second trial, three years later, were chosen from the Jackson, Tennessee, area, once again amid protests that Ford was not getting a fair shake. The sequestered jury included 11 whites and one black, which seemed to confirm Fords fears. But the congressman and his Washington, D.C., attorneys played the hand they were dealt and won the case.
Ford was a textbook study in self-control. He wore the same conservative suit every day of the trial, chatted pleasantly with reporters, and showed little expression to the jury. And in a departure from his first trial, he took the stand to testify. In a dramatic confrontation with Clancy, he took the blows about his financial irresponsibility, while also painting a sympathetic picture of himself as a hard-working son, father, and businessman. The government, meanwhile, relied mainly on a succession of bank examiners and FBI auditors to make its case. After weeks of charts and financial details that strained the jurys attention span, Fords testimony was the turning point.
Dixon, characterized as a plodder by his political associates, lacks Fords charisma and compelling personal story, should he decide to testify. In two high-profile federal court trials in Memphis last year, defendants who declined to testify got mixed results. Football booster Logan Young was convicted, while former Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith went free when the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
Dixon unsuccessfully tried to have his case dismissed on grounds that the FBIs bogus computer company E-Cycle Management targeted only black legislators. All of the Memphis defendants, and eight of the 10 Tennessee Waltz defendants to date, are black.
Dixons biggest problem, of course, is the evidence against him, including tapes describing his assistance in getting a bill passed for E-Cycle and his share of $9,500 in payoffs. In the Ford trial, there were no tapes and jurors said they were unclear about exactly what he did. Taking the blows could be fatal for Dixon.