The state's attorney for Montgomery County sharply criticized Circuit Court Judge William Miller yesterday for allowing a "carnival atmosphere" to prevail at the trial of the Progress Club, an organization of mostly wealthy businessmen in Rockville accused of allowing illegal gambling.
"This is the worst-run trial I've seen in this courthouse, ever," State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner said in an interview after the day's proceedings. "The judge has exercised less leadership and less control . . . . If it happened to a defendant, he'd be entitled to a mistrial or a new trial." Sonner began working as an assistant state's attorney in the county in 1967.
In response to Sonner's charge, Miller said: "Well, he's got a right to criticize, but I've got a trial and I'm not going to comment."
Nearly 100 club members and their families have crowded into Miller's courtroom since the corporation that runs the club went on trial Wednesday on six counts of running a place to gamble. Within earshot of the six men and six women of the jury, spectators in the courtroom have joked and commented on testimony. At one point during yesterday's proceedings, defense attorney Barry Helfand turned toward the unruly audience and, pressing a finger against his lips, loudly "shushed" them.
But Miller has tolerated the noise at the trial -- one that contrasts sharply with Circuit Court's more normal and somber fare of rape, murder, robbery and other trials that have tangible victims and defendants.
Yesterday, defense attorneys called a California gambling consultant, Robert Snyder, to testify that poker is a game of skill, not chance, and therefore is not illegal under Maryland law. Poker, along with gin rummy, was the most popular card game at the club.
The case is expected to go to the jury Monday, after both sides present their final arguments.
The corporation that runs the club has pleaded innocent. It faces a maximum penalty of $6,000 -- $1,000 for each of six counts of running a place to gamble. Rockville police raided the club last June 5 after a 5 1/2 month undercover investigation. Club members do not deny that they played high-stakes card games at the club.