DIXON TRIAL: Roscoe Gets Game 

Talk about segues! On the defensive for a week as the prosecution presented its case against him, former state Senator Roscoe Dixon managed late Monday to turn his extortion trial into a combination shmooze-fest/Meet-Your-Candidate rally, with his jury in federal court serving as a captive audience – and maybe even a captivated one.

Having made the decision to counter four straight days of damning testimony and FBI surveillance tapes by taking the stand in his own defense, Dixon spent the better part of an hour letting his lead attorney, Coleman Garrett, guide him through a sunny self-exposition that rivaled some inspirational tale by Horatio Alger. Smiling and at ease, Dixon traced his personal history from humble South Memphis origins through unexpected early success and service as a Vietnam-era Army officer to a career in the Tennessee General Assembly that he made sound downright distinguished.

Dixon had just got to the point, at roughly 5:30 in the afternoon, of describing how a nose-to-the-grindstone legislator goes from 162 pounds to 240 by compulsive grazing at lobbyist receptions when presiding judge Jon McCalla decided that was a good time to call a halt to the day’s proceedings so that jurors (some of whom may have been brought to the point of salivation) could arrange their own chow-time.

By then, the accused former senator – first among the major legislative figures to stand trial for their role in the Tennessee Waltz scandal – had constructed a persona more accessible and infinitely less threatening than the Buddha-like Mr. Big of Corruption the government had portrayed. Moreover, in his husbandly fumbling for the right number of years he’d been married (“I’m fixing to get killed”) to his shucksy acknowledgments of setbacks in an upward career curve that still came off as impressive, Dixon succeeded in appearing more palpably human than had the witnesses against him:

The mousey blabbermouth Barry Myers, the smugly arrogant Tim Willis, the dutiful state officials and FBI operatives – including faux “E-Cycle” executives Joe Carson and L.C. McNeil, who came off as austerely bureaucratic versions of the more flesh-and-blood characters the two agents had impersonated in the videos and audios. (McNeil’s morphing from an expansive Good-Time Charlie into the former ministerial student and sober Straight Arrow of his on-stand resume was especially jolting.)

To be sure, Dixon’s recasting of himself as the hero of the play, not its villain, was a big-time presumption – not to mention the longest kind of long-odds gamble. But its sincerity content matched up favorably with the preposterous straight-faced assertions of noble motivation professed from the stand by former acolyte Myers (“I’m his boy, his bagman,” had been his self-description to McNeil) and consultant-gone-wrong Willis, impressed into service by the FBI (with a lucrative “Personal Services Contract,” no less!) after being nailed for scams in Mississippi and with the Juvenile Court clerk’s office in Memphis.

Both Myers and Willis said they were testifying in order to “do the right thing,” not to curry favor with the authorities. Right.

Still, compared to his de facto role model, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., whose focused and persuasive testimony from the stand was the decisive weapon in Ford’s 1993 acquittal on federal bank fraud charges, Dixon is up against it

Not that Ford’s attorney in 1993, William McDaniels, had been mesmeric (that quality was better fulfilled by other attorneys representing other defendants in the case), but the high-priced Washingtonian had exuded an unmistakable aura of competence. Maybe there is method to the maddening aimlessness of Garrett’s cross-examinations but, with the exception of his giving Dixon a long leash to describe himself on Monday, Garrett has done little more so far than give prosecutor Tim DiScenza a peptically challenged look and cause the remarkably patient Judge McCalla to keep saying “Sustained.”

And in 1993 there were no telltale videos, grainy or otherwise, linking the former Memphis congressman to any of the felonies he was accused of.

Parenthesis: For many years, Dixon was to Ford as Myers was to Dixon. In fact, Dixon’s place in a Ford-centered network juxtaposed to the rival network of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton is a theme not yet fully activated – but capable of becoming so in the rest of this trial and in trials to come.

There’s a lot at stake – political as well as legal – in the outcome of the current trial. And, though the preponderance of the evidence seems to weigh heavily against Dixon, the portly former Army captain seems determined – and maybe even capable – of making a fight of it. We may know the result by the weekend.

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