Former Rep. William J. Jefferson strode into the courtroom on this most important day of his corruption trial and lowered his lanky frame into a chair at the defense table.
That was as close as the Louisiana Democrat ever got to the witness stand at federal court in Alexandria.
Thursday would have been Mr. Jefferson’s chance to tell his side of the story; the prosecution rested its case earlier after five weeks and 50 witnesses.
Prosecutors say Mr. Jefferson, who is charged in a 16-count indictment with bribery, money laundering and other charges, took cash and gifts in exchange for helping American businesses get a foothold in several West African countries. The defense counters that Mr. Jefferson was simply helping companies, run by his family, to provide legitimate consulting services - an ethically questionable, though ultimately legal activity.
But defense attorneys chose not to have their client testify to bolster their arguments. Instead, the defense completed its case by calling only two witnesses, who each testified briefly, and by playing several recordings of conversations involving Mr. Jefferson and an FBI informant.
With the defense taking only part of a day to present its case, closing arguments could come as soon as Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III made clear to the jury that they couldn’t hold the non-testimony against Mr. Jefferson, who served nine terms in Congress before he lost a re-election bid last year.
“The defendant is not required to present evidence and the defendant is not required to testify, he has an absolute constitutional right to remain silent,” Judge Ellis told the jury.
Defense lawyers have various reasons for not putting clients on the stand: it sometimes reflects a fear the defendant could incriminate himself under cross-examination, or it sometimes reflects a confidence that the prosecution’s case is so weak the jury doesn’t need to hear from the defendant to acquit.
The defense team did not say in court and declined to explain later why it did not call Mr. Jefferson to testify.
The two witness that did testify for the defense were meant to show that prosecution witnesses had incorrectly testified about the dates of meetings that prosecutors argued were part of Mr. Jefferson’s corrupt schemes.
One of the witnesses was Justin Cox, a doctor who testified about a quintuple bypass surgery that Mr. Jefferson had, which the defense will use to call into question the credibility of a prosecution witness who testified to having a meeting with Mr. Jefferson shortly after the surgery.
The other witness was Larry Stockstill, a pastor who presided over the funeral of Mr. Jefferson’s brother-in-law, the date of which the defense will argue contradicts another prosecution witness’s testimony about another meeting involving Mr. Jefferson.
The defense concluded presenting evidence by playing recordings of 2005 conversations between Mr. Jefferson and Lori Mody, a Northern Virginia businesswoman who became an FBI informant after becoming suspicious of her business dealings that included Mr. Jefferson and were related to a telecommunications contract in Nigeria.
The prosecution had already played portions of the video and audio recordings, including a clip that prosecutors say shows Mr. Jefferson taking $100,000 in cash from Ms. Mody that was supposed to be used to bribe the vice president of Nigeria.
Most of that money was infamously found later in Mr. Jefferson’s freezer.
But the defense has offered another explanation, claiming Ms. Mody is emotionally unstable and that Mr. Jefferson took the money from her so as not to upset her fragile state. They further argue that overzealous FBI agents set up the payment out of a desire to arrest a member of Congress.
Despite her central role in the case, Ms. Mody was not called to testify, and prosecutors have not said why.
The recordings played Thursday portray a more sympathetic portrait of Mr. Jefferson. In the recordings, he speaks about his children and offers kind reassurances to Ms. Mody about the business deal.
“I hope I’ve helped you feel empowered,” Mr. Jefferson said at one point.
“Yes, you have, absolutely,” she said. “Thank you.”