CITY BEAT: Dixon Trial Under Way 

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. Dixon’s 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 Ford’s 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 jury’s attention span, Ford’s testimony was the turning point.

Dixon, characterized as “a plodder” by his political associates, lacks Ford’s 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 FBI’s 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.

Dixon’s 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.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

    • Post-Mortem, Pre-Birth

      On the surface, the GOP still rules in Tennessee, but the election showed evidence of Democratic revival.
    • Last Stop, Memphis!

      On the long campaign’s final night, most of the major candidates were working Shelby County.


Hungry Memphis

Zopita's on the Square to open Nov. 19

We Saw You

Indie Film Fest, Grilled Cheese Fest, Adapt-A-Door and more!

Hungry Memphis

Little Italy Opening Downtown

News Blog

Seven Vie for Vacant District 1 Council Seat

News Blog

Group of White Women Test Mall’s No Hoodie Policy

Hungry Memphis

The Nine Now Open

Fly On The Wall Blog

What’s Kids in the Hall Co-Founder Kevin McDonald Doing in Memphis?

Hungry Memphis

Gordon Ramsay's in Memphis to Save a Restaurant!

News Blog

TVA CEO Set to Retire in April

News Blog

Leaders Work to Revamp Public Art Guidelines


More by John Branston

  • Pyramid History 101

    Bass Pro should acknowledge the big pointy building’s backstory.
    • May 14, 2015
  • Let it Be

    What to do about the Fairgrounds? How about nothing?
    • Jan 29, 2015
  • Let’s Go, Shelby County Schools!

    Some suggestions for how the new Shelby County Schools system can hold its own in the years to come.
    • Aug 14, 2014
  • More »

Readers also liked…

© 1996-2018

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation