Today’s Opinion: Courtroom tricks

POSTED: 04/14/11 12:05 PM

Sometimes we wonder about what defendants think to achieve by displaying a belligerent attitude in court. Yesterday we saw a prime example in the human smuggling trial that resulted from the Cerberus-investigation.

One of the defendants, considered by the prosecution as a major player in the local market for human smuggling, is a 64-year-old taxi driver, Erold Montgomery B.

He was arrested on November 14 with ten illegal Cubans in his taxi. Yesterday he had to answer to charges of human smuggling and membership of a criminal investigation.

Erold B., who had a large support cast in court that may or may not have inspired his belligerent attitude, had to sit through a lot of damaging evidence stemming from phone taps.

But whenever Judge Keppels or prosecutor Ridderbeks confronted him with results from the phone taps, the taxi driver answered (at least most of the time) with something like: I don’t recall, or I never said that.

When Prosecutor Ridderbeks asked him a specific question about the meaning of the expression “Is the big thing gone?” The cab driver first became evasive, then creative, and in the end highly irritated to the point that his attorney mr. J.G. Bloem put a hand on his shoulder urging him to calm down.

That big thing was, according to investigators, the Coast Guard vessel and the question that the cab driver had put to one of the co-suspects in the Cerberus-investigation, fisherman Louis B., was obviously related to a go or no go for a transport of illegals.

But Erold B., whose credibility was already at a dubious level due to his denials in the face of overwhelming evidence and his memory short circuits when he had nothing better to add, opted for an attempt at humor by saying that the fisherman has a big wife and that he wanted to know whether she was gone.

When Ridderbeks persisted, and added for good measure a four-letter word (from a verbatim quote by the defendant on the phone tap recordings), he became visibly agitated, but things calmed down after his attorney intervened.

We will never know whether part of the 7-year demand against Erold B. is to be attributed to his attitude in court – usually the prosecution and the Judge refrain from getting to specific about stiff like that. But we do know, and that statement has been made in court in general terms many times, that the attitude of a defendant does play a role when it is time to decide about a sentence.

Erold B. certainly was not scoring any brownie points with the prosecution yesterday, and we doubt very much that his attitude went down well with Judge Keppels.

To add to his predicament, Erold B. went through a number of questions his attorney asked him about certain aspects of the case. One example is a question whether B. took 14 people in his taxi to Mullet Bay on August 14. Another one was about whether he had received any money from so and so.

Though the questions seemed logical and designed to establish the cab driver’s limited role the question and answer sessions also gave the impression that it had been extensively rehearsed. It made the defendant look like a monkey doing tricks for an audience.

But for all you know these type of courtroom tricks work well and benefit the defendant. In love and war, they say, everything is permitted. In court however, certain rules apply. One of the funnier rules is that defendants do not have to speak the truth. They are not placed under oath.

That leaves the decision about the value of their statements, whether they are stubborn denials to questions by the prosecution, slick answers to rehearsed questions from a defense attorney, or the whole truth and nothing but the truth entirely up to the Judge. Most people know that first impressions are strong communicators but somehow we suspect that Erold B. is not one of them.


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