Witness for the Defense | Bob Norman | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Witness for the Defense

Page 2 of 3

I've always avoided testifying before a jury, although prosecutors have regularly tried to force me to do so. In those cases, interviews with suspected criminals piqued their interest. A couple of chats that got me subpoenaed involved a drunk driver who'd killed three people and a funeral home director who left a dozen corpses to rot in a storage shed. I'm under subpoena at this very moment from the Broward State Attorney's Office in a Mafia case involving alleged Bonanno crime family capo Gerard Chilli. New Times and I are fighting it.

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.

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.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

Latest Stories