Blowing Smoke at Hotel Six

If Betti was Dorothy, and the FBI was the Wizard, who was Toto?

"Some buildings, their elevators don't always go to the top floor," explained Mike DeGeurin. "Michael Yarbrough's elevator didn't go to the top floor several times. He was outsmarted and out-tricked ... the wheel was spinning too fast for him."

The defense saved its two headliners, Mike Ramsey and Dick DeGuerin, for the finish, and for the first half of his two-hour presentation, Ramsey gave the best presentation of the trial.

Prowling in front of the jury with his jaw clenched, Ramsey scorched the government for its conduct and repeatedly employed the image of Julio Molineiro knocking at a juror's door.

"Hi, I'm Julio. There's a wreck down the road," Ramsey grimaced. "One of your relatives is involved, and while you're gone, I'll keep the kids."

Ramsey painted his client Reyes as "an American original," a consummate idealist and defender of Hispanic interests and a sworn enemy of the Houston downtown establishment. That conveniently ignored the fact that the councilman had plenty of powerful establishment supporters during a 25-year political career, including the patronage of the Houston Endowment, the former Houston Chronicle owner whose operatives literally gave Reyes a lumberyard that he later ran into bankruptcy.

Never mind that Ramsey's address misquoted Teddy Roosevelt as John F. Kennedy, had the Constitution written in the wrong city, attributed a Bob Lanier quote about the JMB Hotel proposal to developer Wayne Duddlesten's project instead and made Julian Bond the mayor of Atlanta, a position he never held. It was riveting, and most of the jurors probably didn't notice the errors.

"Julio Molineiro glistens and stinks like a dead mackerel in moonlight," growled Ramsey. "Seems to me the government ought to get their own house in order before they come trying to help us."

Last was Maldonado attorney Dick DeGuerin, who has waged his defense as a jihad against the FBI, a crusade he began with his work on behalf of the late Branch Davidian leader David Koresh during the federal siege of the compound outside Waco. Throughout the trial, DeGuerin has labored with every possible witness to get each one to describe his "Dorothy" as well meaning but gullible, earnest but easily manipulated.

"To fool Betti was like a walk in the park" for trained FBI agents, said DeGuerin, who then admitted that under pressure his client had surrendered her ethics. "If she had been true to herself she would not be here. She allowed her resistance to doing wrong to be overcome."

Having conceded that Betti committed illegal acts by passing money to councilmembers, DeGuerin built the case that she was innocent because she had been entrapped by agents into breaking the law.

DeGuerin's ace in the hole is Judge Hittner's instruction to the jury on what constitutes entrapment. The instructions define a victim of entrapment as a person who has no previous intent or purpose to violate the law, "but is induced or persuaded by law-enforcement officers or their agents to commit a crime." Further, the instructions specify that the burden is on the government "to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was not entrapped."

Since the government presented no evidence that Maldonado had an inclination to bribe councilmembers before she met the Cayman operatives, it would appear the instructions give her a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Perhaps recognizing that hole in his offense, prosecutor Attanasio targeted much of his final hour of argument on Maldonado.

"In Betti Maldonado's world, you can do or say whatever you want, and slide cash to councilmembers, as long as your lawyer can come back and say you're tricked." He then played a tape of Maldonado saying, "I can't be naive about it, how much they got cash stuff."

DeGuerin exploded with objections when Attanasio characterized Betti as "ready and willing" and exempt from entrapment. That provoked Judge Hittner into shouting "sit down" three times at DeGuerin, before he finally complied.

In perhaps his most effective counter-jab, the prosecutor parodied Ramsey's "Hi, I'm Julio" routine by slapping an audiotape and videotape on the rail in front of the jurors. "Hi, I'm Julio, there's a wreck down the road, and here's an audiotape of it and a video of it.

"It's a smoke screen to take you away from the evidence," the prosecutor told the jurors. "Ramsey forgot about this."

Attanasio was not without his own missteps. Smarting from the ridicule of the defense attorneys as Washington bureaucrats trying to impose the Justice Department's will on Houstonians, the young prosecutor fell right into the trap. "We're living out of our suitcases and doing the best we can," he lamented.

The defense segment of the gallery hooted in mock sympathy, and Attanasio had inadvertently called up before the jury an image he certainly hadn't intended, that of the Civil War-era "carpetbagger" sent down by the federal government to impose order on the defeated South.

In making their decision, the Hotel Six jurors plowed through the high and low points of a mountain of audio- and videotapes, and the resulting transcripts. Yet in the end, their decision -- or failure to reach one -- may be shaped as much by what they did not hear as by what came out of the speakers and monitors in Judge Hittner's federal courtroom.

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