A defense lawyer for indicted Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney William L. Cowhig, appearing at a pretrial hearing, accused prosecutors yesterday of handing over documents filled with "garbage" and was quieted only after the judge yelled at him.
"Now listen to me!" Prince William Circuit Judge Percy Thornton thundered at chief defense attorney Louis Koutoulakos continued to object loudly to papers special prosecutor Edward J. White had filed with the court.
"Use proper language. It's not garbage," Thornton told Koutoulakos shortly before associate defense counsel Leonard B. Sussholz apologized to the court "on behalf of the defense" for use of the term.
The outburst came at three-hour hearing in a Manassas courtroom which served as a curtain-raiser for Cowhig's trial, scheduled to start next Tuesday.
Cowhig, 53, was indicted last Aug. 3 by an Alexandria grand jury on a charge of asking for and receiving about $34,000 in bribes during 1977 and 1978 in exchange for the exercise of his "judicial discretion" regarding bingo games run in the city. Cowhig allegedly was paid the bribes by Dirgham Salahi, director of the Montessori School of Alexandria Inc. and a bingo operator.
Cowhig is the first Virginia commonwealth's attorney to be indicted while in office in history, and his defense is expected to be fierce and wide-ranging.
Defense attorney Sussholz emotionally told Thornton yesterday that the indictment has placed Cowhig's "life at stake, because this prosecutor seeks to place him in the penitentiary, where he (as Alexandria's chief prosecutor) has placed many inmates."
Moments later Koutoulakos ridiculed the indictment as being so "vague" that Cowhig had in effect been charged under "a dirty thought statute."
Suzzholz also complained to Thornton that "highly inflammatory . . . and inaccurate" newspaper reports had made it "nearly impossible" for an impartial jury to be found in Alexandria, where the trial will be held. The defense has not asked for a charge of venue, however.
Thornton agreed with Sussholz about the press. Leaning back in his chair he said, "All newspapers look for is sensationalism. They're not interested in getting to the real facts."
Special prosecutor White, smiling, responded to defense complaints about the news reports by saying, "If they don't like it, they shouldn't have asked for it." White recently filed additional information pertaining to the indictment with the court after defense lawyers sought it.
Thornton granted various defense requests yesterday compelling Salahi to produce on Thursday tax records for himself and the school, as well as the school's bingo records since it began sponsoring the games in 1973.
Although Sussholz claimed that Salahi made "thrice annual" trips to Belgium, Switzerland and Jerusalem. Thornton turned down a request for the passports of Salahi and his wife, Corrine.
Thornton also called one defense request for Montessori School documents a "fishing" expedition, and denied it.
Salahi has been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony, which is believed by some city officials to be the only evidence that will link Cowhig directly to the alleged receipt of cash.
Yesterday Sussholz told Thornton that Salahi had been "skimming" funds from bingo games, an indication that the credibility of Salahi will be a key part of the defense case.
Thornton also ordered White to describe for the defense by Thursday the contents of tape recordings and notes made by Salahi and reputedly destroyed by him at Cowhig's direction.
Thornton ordered the defense to furnish White with a list of witnesses expected to be called, as well as an "alibi statement," a document detailing where Cowhig claims to have been when, according to prosecution, he accepted cash in exchange for favors.
The jury trial is expected to last at least four days.
Thornton was appointed by the Virginia State Supreme Court to preside at Cowhig's trial after Alexandria's Circuit Court judges excused themselves from hearing the case because of their personal knowledge of Cowhig.