A character witness for former Illinois Gov. George Ryan?
Is that some kind of oxymoron?
Well, no. But bereft of much substantive evidence to present on their client's behalf, lawyers for former Illinois Gov. George Ryan have spent considerable time presenting character witnesses in Ryan's defense to federal corruption charges.
Character witnesses? You know, those folks who come in and swear that the defendant, no matter how odious or persuasive the charges against him, is just one heck of a fellow, honest as the day is long, wouldn't harm a fly, helps little old ladies cross the street and feeds stray dogs and cats.
Do they have any familiarity with the details of the case? No, but no matter, the defendant is just one swell guy.
There's no substance to their testimony because they know nothing about the case. But defense lawyers have been using character witnesses for decades because it's good padding and the witnesses are like chicken soup as a cure for a cold -- they can't hurt.
Ryan's trial has not been going well for the defense. He's been tied to multiple misdeeds, everything from income tax evasion to payoffs to squelching law enforcement efforts to investigate misconduct that occurred in his office while he was secretary of state and governor.
The prosecution spent four months presenting loads of evidence, much of which made Ryan and his co-defendant look like a couple of sleazy partners in the buying and selling of Illinois government.
Defense lawyer Dan Webb, who really does know what he's doing, hinted that he wouldn't have much to present to the jury when he bragged to reporters that most of the defense case came in the form of cross-examination of prosecution witnesses.
That's a sure sign of trouble for Ryan. Webb's cross-examinations were professional, but he didn't have any Perry Mason moments.
So when it came his turn at the plate, Webb presented character witnesses and a few other bit players who didn't really contradict the substance of the prosecution case. All the while, Webb tantalized the press with hints that he was saving his big gun [–] Ryan himself [–] for the end of the case. (I am extremely skeptical that Ryan will testify. If he does, it's a sure sign the defense is desperate). And reporters bought it hook, like and sinker [–] reporting day after day on the possibility that Ryan might testify while virtually ignoring the defense presentation. Not that there was much of a presentation.
In an effort at jury nullification [–] persuading the jury to ignore the evidence and vote to acquit [–] defense lawyers tried to tell the jury about Ryan's role in the death penalty issue, specifically his moratorium and his decision to set aside the death penalty for all Illinois inmates on death row.
The judge ruled, quite correctly, that the issue had nothing to do with the case and barred any mention of it. But not to be deterred, defense lawyers presented character testimony from death penalty foes Sister Helen Prejean, the nun from Dead Man Walking, and actor Mike Farrell, B.J. from the television show M*A*S*H, to testify to Ryan's character.
Neither of them, of course, know anything about Ryan. Their contact with him has been minimal, involving only the issue of the death penalty. They're not from Illinois, never observed Ryan's pursuit of politics in this state and know nothing about it.
Still, egos like theirs are hard to suppress.
"He is principled by his conscience, not politics," Farrell intoned, as if he really knows anything about it.
Ryan has never had, does not have now and never will have anything approaching principles in politics. Politics to him has always been about winning and passing out goodies to his friends and supporters.
That's not entirely bad. Flexibility, not straitjacketed ideology, is a useful political tool. But flexibility combined with Ryan's amorality and his lack of any principled approach to government are exactly what led him to where he is today -- in serious danger of going to prison for a long time.
Ryan always played, "Let's make a deal." He loved it, thrived on it and excelled at it.
But what of the character witnesses?
Well, putting on a slew of them takes time, and it allows the defense to accurately argue that it took up a number of days and presented a number of witnesses in Ryan's defense. So how could any reasonable person listening to all that evidence find Ryan guilty of anything?
Well, if jurors actually did listen to the evidence, it will be easy. That's because trials, barring any O.J. Simpsonlike distractions, are about facts and evidence presented by those who were there, not speculation from vapid celebrities and well-meaning but naive dupes.