Lemons have an odd way of sprouting in the legal lexicon. Lemon laws protect car buyers. The Lemon test helps govern the separation of church and state. And today, lawyers for ex-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) introduced what might be called "the lemon defense."
In closing arguments this afternoon in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Washington defense attorney Robert Trout told the jury that the FBI had targeted Jefferson in a sting operation, in which the bureau tried to catch him paying bribe money to the vice president of Nigeria. But when the money turned up in Jefferson’s freezer instead of the vice president’s house, Trout said, investigators realized they had "a lemon of a case."
"They decided they wanted to make lemonade out of lemons," the Trout Cacheris name partner continued on. “And before you can do that, you’ve got to squeeze a lot of lemons. And so they squeezed some lemons."
The "lemons" squeezed by the FBI, Trout said, were the witnesses who would eventually testify that they bribed Jefferson to use his congressional connections to set up business deals in Africa.
According to Trout, at the time they were doing business with Jefferson, none of those witnesses seemed to think they were involved in anything illegal. Only when the FBI came knocking, Trout said, did they begin changing their stories.
Trout singled out Vernon Jackson, the prosecution’s star witness, whom he called “the definition of a blowhard.” Jackson, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to bribing Jefferson, switched his story on the stand, Trout argued. As Trout described Jackson’s evolution: First, he said he took a plea bargain because he thought the government might be able to convict him; only later did he say it was because he had actually violated the law.
The case against Jefferson is “about the government’s ability to turn something that is not a crime into a crime,” Trout said. “And ladies and gentleman, that’s power.”
“That’s power” became a leitmotif during the nearly two-and-a-half hour closing argument. Trout appeared to choke back tears as he told the jury that they could “speak truth to power” and defend democracy by ruling for his client.
Trout did acknowledge that Jefferson was guilty of bad judgment. He said that Jefferson made a poor choice in trying to placate an investor by pretending that he would bribe the Nigerian vice president.
He also said that Jefferson’s business dealings might have violated House ethics rules and could have appeared improper. But there is a bright line between House ethics violations and crime, he said. That bright line appeared—in yellow--on a PowerPoint slide, which he presented to the jury.
On another slide, against a gray background, the words “mistakes,” “negligence,” “recklessness,” “ethics violations” and “appearance of impropriety” floated on a gray background.
“There is a difference between a gray area and a crime,” Trout said.