Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Expletive in the court

Coffey's F word: the detailsthe others didn’t report

By David Baker
Posted Sunday, April 19, 2009

Last week, for the second time, a jury convicted Warren Powell of murder. The 38-year-old was found guilty of strangling his 22-year-old wife, Mary Ann, in 1994. The first trial also ended with a conviction but that verdict was overturned by an appeals court because of an error in jury selection.

This time, Powell was represented by attorney Stephen Coffey of the Albany law firm O’Connell & Aronowitz. During the trial, a question was raised about who is paying Coffey. Coffey objected to the question and called for a mistrial. The judge denied Coffey’s motion, but the question that was also raised in the last post on this page remains: Was Coffey paid for his representation? Or did he do it for the media coverage he knew the case would receive?

And there was plenty of media coverage. The Albany Times Union, the Hudson Register Star, The Daily Gazette and The Columbia Paper (until last week reporting only on the Internet) all had reporters at the courthouse in Hudson, as did television station WNYT and, at times, WRGB and WTEN.

But there were some details that none of these reporters passed on to their readers and viewers. Such as:

* Coffey’s use of an expletive during his closing argument. And he wasn’t quoting anyone. It happened about halfway through a somewhat disorganized and repetitious 80-minute summation, as some of the jurors were clearly struggling to maintain their attention. One woman in the middle of the front row had been stifling a yawn and others jurors were beginning to fidget. Coffey was saying that his client could have done something a certain way but he didn’t “…because Warren Powell knew that if he did, he would be f***ked.”

The word got the jurors’ attention You could almost hear some of them thinking: “Did he really just say what I thought he said?” But Coffey continued speaking, apparently unaware of his use of the inappropriate and unnecessary language.

* Coffey, also during his summation, referring to his client as “Wayne.” He immediately corrected himself. But five minutes later, he did it again.

* Coffey, at the start of proceedings on the last day of testimony, having to apologize to the judge for a sudden angry and disrespectful outburst. This happened twice. The first time was over a request by the prosecution to obtain via fax a document from the Schenectady County Jail regarding the dates that a witness had been incarcerated.

Coffey’s second display of apparently uncontrollable anger came when the judge seemed reluctant to grant Coffey’s request that the proceedings be moved from a small courtroom on the first floor to a bigger courtroom on the floor above. The reason for the request Coffey said, was because he didn’t want to have to present his closing argument with members of the State Police near to him and to the jurors.

During the trial, Coffey had repeatedly accused State Police and Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department investigators of fabricating evidence against Powell, although he presented nothing to substantiate his claim of possibly criminal conduct.

Judge Jonathan Nichols said he was reluctant to move to the upper floor as this could cause embarrassment to one individual covering the trial who would have great difficulty using the stairs. The courtroom on the second floor of the building, the judge noted, was not accessible to people with disabilities, a situation he called “shameful.”

Later, after a recess, the judge said he had spoken with the person and based on that, and on the fact that more people could be expected to attend the last days of the case, he would agree to the move.

The next day the jury found Powell guilty of murder.

As he was led away to a police van, Powell told a TV reporter that he plans to appeal. But Coffey, in a separate interview, said nothing about another court proceeding to challenge the verdict.

And why would he. Appeals generally get little attention in the media, certainly not almost three weeks of daily coverage. For Coffey, there just wouldn’t be any point.