Who’s Who

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

I’ll assume that anyone who’s read at all about Cory Maye’s case knows who Cory Maye is. And you all know who I am. But I thought it might be helpful to run down a quick profile of the major players in last week’s hearing before I get into the substance of the hearing itself.

Bob Evans

Cory’s chief counsel, and the public defender for Jefferson Davis County. Bob’s a gregarious, easygoing, likeable guy. Great sense of humor. He’s self-deprecating, save for when he’s talking about his legal skills, in which case he’s rather confident (from what I’ve seen and heard – justifiably so). He’s an unabashed liberal in the deep south, and I think he sort of gets a kick out of that. He’s told me on a couple of occasions how much he enjoys it when one of his biggest critics in the police department or city government comes into his office asking for some help on, for example, a DWI charge. “All of the sudden, criminal defense lawyers aren’t so evil to them anymore,” he says. “I just smile, take their money, and do what I can.”

Evans has an office full of hunting trophies and a drawer full of guns, but he tells me his hunting trips of late are more about getting out and away than the actual shooting of things. He’s a family guy, with four (I think) kids. One of them played high school football with Cory.

Bob has also knew Ron Jones for most of Jones’ life. There are times when I’ve noticed that he’s torn in this case. Not that he has any doubts about Cory’s innocence, but more because he regrets the strain the case is putting on Jones’ family. As I’ve mentioned before, he’s taking Cory’s case pro bono.

Abe Pafford

Abe is the Covington associate who first emailed me early this year about bringing the firm on board. He caught a link to this site in a post by Jonathan Adler over at National Review’s “The Corner.” Very early on, he told me his first thoughts upon reading about the raid were of his own daughter, and what he’d have done if he’d have been in Cory’s predicament that night. Abe got his undergraduate degree from Liberty University, a conservative school (Jerry Falwell founded it), and his law degree from George Washington University.

Abe’s a talker. Evans once said to me of Abe (good naturedly, of course), “Man that guy can talk. It’s like somebody told him he has to use up all the words he’ll ever use in his life in the next two weeks.” His verbosity served him well at the hearing. His oral argument was fantastic. I was wowed. And it’s pretty clear that he overwhelmed the prosecution. Wait ’til you read the transcript.

Ben Vernia

Vernia much more soft-spoken than Pafford or Evans, and has something of a wry, dry sense of humor. He’s a former federal prosecutor with extensive experience in prosecuting Internet child pornography cases, in addition to various other types of white collar crime. It was Vernia who pursued the identity of the informant. His experience as a prosecutor tipped off his suspicions about the affidavits Officer Jones provided for the warrant to Cory’s apartment. Of course, it also made sense that the defense team’s former prosecutor would be given the uncomfortable task of levying the heavy charge that Officer Jones’ shortcuts in the warrant process are what led to his death. I think Vernia pulled it off quite well. I expected to see some gasps and discomfort from observers on the prosecution side at that point in the hearing. I didn’t notice any.

Jessica Gabel

Gabel is based in Covington’s San Francisco office, and is the greenest member of the defense team — she earned her J.D. in 2004. In the short term at least, it was her part of the case that won the day. Gabel questioned Michelle Longino, the grandmother of Tacorriana. Longino gave some powerful, emotional testimony about Cory’s close relationship with his daughter, as well as a wealth of information about Cory’s character. The defense’s aim was to show how far Rhonda Cooper had fallen short in giving the jury information about Cory has a real, three-dimensional person — or, in other words, to give them reasons not to execute him. Gabel covered similar ground in her oral argument. She got a bit emotional toward the end, which I gather in most courtrooms and in most cases is ill-advised. In this case, though, I think it may actually have helped.

Michael Labson

Labson is the Covington partner overseeing the case. He didn’t speak at the hearing, though I chatted with him a few times. He’s a nice guy, a Harvard grad with a background in food and drug regulation.

Claiborne “Buddy” McDonald

McDonald is the district attorney. He’s the one who prosecuted Cory, and who handled the bulk of the hearing. He’s an egg-shaped man, with a sunburnt complexion, and a deep drawl that lumbers over the hard candy he always seems to have in his mouth.

There’s no questioning the guy’s lawyering prowess. He’s a skilled, deft, and clever attorney. He’s also a bully. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a less sympathetic prosecutor. But then, he doesn’t try to be sympathetic. His M.O. is self-assuredness, not likeability. He comes off as so cocksure and confident in his case, he at times seems almost annoyed that he has to go through the formality of a court proceeding. He projects authority, giving off a vibe that sort of commands you to buy into what he’s saying simply because he’s the prosecutor, and he knows about these things, regardless of the evidence.

That’s certainly how he’s approached this case. I remember when I first began writing about Cory, McDonald emailed me several times to tell me, rather dismissively, that if I’d only read the trial transcripts, all of my questions would be answered, and my concerns about this case would go away. He even sent them to me. Needless to say, the transcripts really only confirmed my suspicions, and raised all sorts of new questions.

It’s easy to see how McDonald could knock an experienced or overworked defense attorney around the courtroom. I’ll give examples of this that came out at the hearing, but his technique seems to be to embrace multiple theories about what happened, from which he can then pick and choose in his line of questioning, depending on which theory best fits whatever aspect of the case is in question. Some of the theories contradict one another. Some are dubious. But you can see how this technique would serve him well in a trial. At trial, a jury is generally focused on the present. It would be unlikely to occur to a juror that Buddy might be using a theory to cross examine a witness that’s in direct conflict with a theory he used to question a different witness days before. In the “now,” the feeling stuck in the juror’s head is that Buddy cast doubt on what the witness was saying. Never mind that his line of questioning would make no sense when put into context. It’s not difficult to see how an outgunned defense attorney would have a difficult time keeping up.

I don’t think Buddy’s methods worked as well last week, for several reasons. First, his audience was an experienced judge, not a lay jury. Second, he was up against a bright team of well-prepared lawyers, not a sleep-deprived, short-on-resources public defender. And third, last week he was meneuvering not in the tight, fast-paced confines of a trial, but in a slower, drawn-out, hearing — a format where arguments matter, context matters, and the defense team had time to recognize, contextualize, and call him on his bullshit.

Buddy’s also a showman. Several times during the trial, he’d get up while the defense team was talking or questioning a witness, unsubtly march to the back of the courtroom, and huddle up in the corner with the bailif and highway patrol officers. His cell phone went off twice (by my count) during court proceedings. I’ll get into some of his other theatrics later. The point is, the guy stops at nothing to get an advantage, including distraction, intimidation, and even — when need be — a little humor. He’s certainly entertaining to watch.

Doug Miller

Miller is the assistance district attorney, looks a little like Richard Hatch, and in some ways is the good cop to Buddy’s bad cop. At Cory’s trial, Miller delivered the initial closing statement, which was rather innocuous and straightforward. A more at-ease Rhonda Cooper gave her closing. Buddy then gave the rebuttal, and pouncedfor the kill. I actually thought Miller’s cross-examination of defense crime scene investigator Larry McCann was the high point of the two days for the prosecution. McCann ably recovered on redirect, but Miller’s cross of McCann early on Wednesday was the one point in the hearing where I briefly thought the prosecution had the upper hand.

Judge Michael Eubanks

He looks like a younger Donald Rumsfeld, minus the glasses. I was impressed with Judge Eubanks. First, it’s rather extraordinary for a judge to give a defense team a two-day hearing on a post-trial motion. He also gave them quite a bit of leeway to make their case, including allowing their computer animations into evidence. He seemed alert and interested in the arguments, asked questions of his own, and was even open to defense suggestions that he made some errors during the trial. He seemed more amused by Buddy McDonald’s theatrics than moved or persuaded by them. And of course, his ruling on Thursday shows that he is taking these motions seriously.

I’ll grant that my opinion could change rather dramatically depending on what happens over the next couple of months. But Bob Evans has been telling me for months that Eubanks is fair, intellectually honest, and from Cory’s perspective probably one of the better judges in Mississippi to be ruling on these motions. I saw nothing at the hearing to suggest otherwise.

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