After three decades as a defense attorney, Robert Simels took the stand himself for the first time Tuesday, in order to defend against charges that he plotted with his client, the since-convicted Guyanese drug kingpin Shaheed Khan, to threaten and bribe potential witnesses.
Throughout the week-and-a-half-long trial, Simels' defense has centered on the idea that an attorney must go to extraordinary lengths to investigate a client's case, even when it means -- as in the present case -- pretending to agree with one witness to terrorize others, in the hope of maintaining the relationship or developing new leads.
On Tuesday, Simels, appearing calm and deliberate and looking directly at the jurors throughout his testimony, said that when he talked of the need to "neutralize" or "kill" a witness, as repeatedly heard on tapes of secretly recorded conversations played by the prosecution, he was not suggesting an intent to do harm, but rather to discredit the witnesses' testimony.
"I use [those terms] all the time, and lawyers use them all the time," Simels said. "It's part of the vernacular of being a lawyer."
Simels also sought to outline the particular difficulties and dangers he faced while attempting to establish Khan's innocence.
The initial obstacle, Simels told the jury, was the dearth of information regarding the charges. The original indictment provided only a single allegation of conspiring with "others" to distribute cocaine, without specifying who those others might be.
But the indictment also included potential evidence of Khan's innocence, Simels said: It referred to Khan as "Short Man," which, as Simels would soon discover, was an unusually common nickname in Guyana.
Simels set out to get the prosecution to admit that there were others known as Short Man.
In preparing to defend Khan, whom he agreed to represent for $1.5 million, Simels made three trips to Guyana, where he met with witnesses and government officials, tracked down leads and prepared for Rule 15 depositions. He said that he felt as if he was in constant danger, and described a massacre that took place in his hotel lobby shortly before he arrived.
Now, the trial has become an extended discourse on the practice of criminal defense. What are the rules and ethics that define an attorney's obligation to "zealously" defend his client? What is expected of an attorney? What is required? What is allowed?
WITNESS FOR THE DEFENSE
To answer those questions, Simels' attorney, Gerald Shargel, on Tuesday called on defense attorney Anthony Ricco, whose clients have included alleged terrorists, high-profile drug dealers and one of the three police officers charged with and then acquitted of killing Sean Bell.
As an expert witness, the charismatic Ricco gave the jury a primer on the laws and ethical standards that govern criminal defense.
The subtext of Ricco's testimony was the propriety of Simel's purported strategy of pretending to "play along with" the suggestions of Selwyn Vaughn, Khan's associate, to threaten witnesses.
In opening arguments last week, Shargel contended that Simels' alleged complicity was merely "words," words simply intended to glean more information from Vaughn.
Vaughn, it turned out, was already cooperating with federal prosecutors, and the tapes of the conversations between Vaughn and Simels have served as the central evidence against Simels.
Though he did not discuss such a tact specifically, Ricco told the jury, "There's nothing wrong with talking with witnesses and potential witnesses about anything. The bottom line is, what the lawyer ultimately decides to put in the courtroom ... must be within the bounds of the law."