Witness for the Defense

When a man bites City Hall in court, our columnist takes the stand

Testifying in those cases would have made me an arm of law enforcement. And I don't want to have to tell my sources, no matter what awful thing they've done, "Oh, and by the way, what you tell me can and will be used against you in a court of law."

I'd rather go to jail.

In the Lozman case, I was only going to testify that what I'd written was true. Instead of betraying a source, I was helping one. It was also a First Amendment case, which we journos are supposed to hold near and dear. My conscience didn't just condone the idea; it urged me to testify, just as I'm sure it would do if I were to witness a serious crime.

Christopher Smith

If I were a regular reporter rather than a columnist, it might have been different. And if I hadn't personally witnessed the city's harassment — and written the article that possibly prompted officials to evict Lozman in the first place — I wouldn't have done it either.

To Lozman, I said I'd testify. He responded by telling me his Johnnie Cochran-inspired trial slogan: If the dog didn't bite, the eviction ain't right.

Though I thought I was doing the right thing, a general sense of dread still burned in my chest as I drove to the Palm Beach County Courthouse last Wednesday morning. There, I had to wait outside the courtroom with the other witnesses, which included a few city marina workers, a retired Navy man who lived in a slip next to Lozman's, city Councilwoman Vanessa Lee, a former Coast Guard officer who runs a diving business at the marina, the owner of the nearby Seashell City shop, and another City Hall gadfly who witnessed the trespassing arrest.

All were served subpoenas by Lozman. The city's own case was minimal, focusing on the lease agreement.

It wasn't long before I realized first-hand why no newspaper would ever want any of its reporters to testify under just about any circumstances. I sat outside the courtroom for, oh, four hours or so before I was called. You see, a witness can't actually watch the trial until after he's testified.

So I couldn't watch the trial that I still wanted to write about. Now, I could regale you with bits of conversation from all of us impatient, frustrated witnesses as we waited our turns (OK, there was talk of the movie Jaws, the mythic Skunk Ape, and the possible homicide of one Fane Lozman), but let's just say we all wished we were somewhere else.

Finally, I was called. The bailiff led me into the sixth-floor courtroom past the smart-looking jury of five women and one man and the Honorable Peter M. Evans, a well-respected 20-year veteran on the bench. After swearing in, I sat on the witness stand across from tall and thin Lozman, who in his big dark suit looked like a fish out of water (or, more precisely, a Florida live-aboard in a courtroom).

Then the fun started. Under Lozman's questioning, I testified that I was at the marina. That was about it before the city's attorney, high-priced municipal law guru George Roberts, began a mind-numbing series of objections.

"Hearsay, your honor," he'd say.

"Sustained," Judge Evans would usually rule.

Then Lozman tried asking me a question — a popular one was a variation of "Did Assistant Chief Harris threaten to put the cuffs on me?" — in different ways and Roberts, a gray-bearded 31-year veteran whose demeanor tilted from amiable to gruff, would successfully object again.

Several times, the judge would call Lozman and Roberts to the bench and turn on a white noise machine so the jury couldn't hear their words. I could hear them, though. Roberts, who also had the help of co-counsel Sherri Renner, kept referring to any testimony I might give as "classic hearsay."

Lozman gave up, and then Roberts began his cross. It went much more smoothly, since he knew what to ask and Lozman had no idea what to object to. One thing Roberts managed to get into the record was that Lozman referred to his city protagonists as "corrupt assholes" (a direct quote from my story), enhancing his basic argument that the defendant was a rule-breaker who was just trying to make trouble.

Lozman tried to question me again but was quickly shot down by the judge, and it was soon over. He was clearly outmatched by Roberts and Renner, but there was something admirable — almost noble — about the effort.

I left the stand almost wishing I'd said more. Almost. Mostly, I was relieved to finally get to watch the trial and take notes. And from there, I got to see a few entertaining snapshots of life at the marina.

The former Coast Guard officer, Sandra Brammeier, told the jury of hearing "a really strange noise" once while on her boat. It was Lozman's cat, which had fallen into the water. Brammeier leapt from her boat and saved the feline, but not without suffering injury.

"I must have kicked a barnacle or something," she testified. "I just about cut off a toe."

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