IT IS GRATIFYING to learn that an unusual and somewhat risky procedure employed in a criminal trial by federal judge Charles R. Richey has been endorsed by an appellate court. His innovation --trying multiple defendants at one trial before two separate juries--would be appropriate only in a small number of cases, but the courts will save time and money each time it is used.
The case before Judge Richey involved bribery and conspiracy charges brought against Robert Lewis and James Boardley, officials of the District's Alcohol Beverage Control Board, and Tommy Motlagh, owner of a restaurant-bar in this city. The ABC officials used their positions to pressure Hechinger Mall, then under construction, into giving Mr. Motlagh a lease for a liquor store, and he in turn agreed to share liquor store profits with the officials.
Criminal conspiracy defendants are often tried together but sometimes--where some of the evidence is admissible against one defendant but not another--two different trials are held. In this case, the testimony of one witness could be used against Mr. Motlagh but not against the other two defendants. Instead of taking the usual route and ordering two separate trials, Judge Richey decided on a joint trial with two separate juries. One panel heard the testimony admissible against Mr. Motlagh and the other, having heard the case against the other two men, left the courtroom when testimony inadmissible against them was given. This simple tactic avoided the repetition of an entire eight-day trial and saved the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.
Three federal circuits have approved the idea of dual juries in conspiracy cases, as have a few state appellate courts. Now, in affirming Judge Richey's decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has held that the procedure is perfectly acceptable here so long as due process is observed and the defense is not prejudiced in some specific way. Judge Richey is to be commended for promoting this alternative rather than accepting automatically the added drain on judicial resources that two separate trials would have entailed.