"Make no mistake about it," the attorney said, his voice rising dramatically before the rapt jury. "On Oct. 1, 1984, Catherine Fuller was murdered in a hideous fashion." Another attorney called the beating "that horrible act." And yet another talked of Fuller's death as "torture" and "disgusting."
But it was not the prosecution that punctuated its courtroom rhetoric with these grisly adjectives. This was the defense -- the attorneys seeking verdicts of not guilty for the 10 young people charged with the brutal beating of a 99-pound mother of six in Northeast Washington. It is a crime that has lured overflow crowds to Courtroom No. 1 in D.C. Superior Court and is the talk of the city's fraternity of criminal lawyers.
"The name of the game is desensitize the jury to the brutality . . . . You bring it to the point where they have heard so much blood and gore, that it won't mean anything . . . . But, there is a fine line between desensitizing and being callous," said Grandison E. Hill, a veteran trial attorney who is an occasional observer of the nearly three-week-old trial.
"It's a real chess game," he said, "and there are a lot of angles to a trial with such violence, with such a high level of publicity . . . with so many defendants."
Indeed, the chess game being played out in Courtroom No. 1 -- with each defendant potentially facing nearly a lifetime prison sentence -- is fraught with pitfalls and paradoxes for the defense. The 10 defendants are charged with beating and kicking Fuller during a robbery attempt over a coin purse, then thrusting a foot-long pole into her rectum.
None of the defense attorneys has tried to minimize the horror of what occurred in an abandoned garage near Eighth and H streets NE, but some question whether the government has charged the right people.
Although the 10 are being tried together, in essence there are 10 separate trials going on. Inherent in the proceeding is this conflict: evidence or testimony that buoys one defendant often will sink another.
"You are almost caught in a cross fire when there are multiple defendants," explained Plato Cacheris, who served as co-counsel for former attorney general John Mitchell in the Watergate trial, with its five defendants. "A guy trying to extract his client has to point a finger at somebody else. It's an easy proposition for the prosecutor. He can sit back in his rocking chair and watch the defense squabble."
Nowhere is this conflict more visible than in Courtroom No. 1. At times, a chorus of objections will rise from the defense tables. Most are aimed at another member of the defense team, and not at one of the two prosecutors.
The proceedings frequently are marked by scornful glances between defense lawyers. A few days ago, after one lawyer finished questioning a prosecution witness, another stormed from the room at recess. "They've got three prosecutors in the courtroom now," he muttered.
Faced with presiding over this extraordinary array of players with competing goals is Judge Robert M. Scott, a 64-year-old jurist known for his bluntness. His challenge is to ensure that each defendant gets a fair trial.
When the numbers are so big, even seemingly simple decisions become complex. For instance, how should the defendants be seated? In two rows, the judge determined, in alphabetical order. The Public Defender Service has the resources to order daily transcripts of the trial for their clients, but what about the others? They must get copies too, the judge has ruled.
On Friday, Scott ruled that the prosecutors could not present a videotaped statement by one defendant, 17-year-old Clifton Yarborough, to the jury because, he said, it "doesn't make sense" after extensive editing. The editing stemmed from a fairness question. Scott had ordered prosecutors to cut from the tape references to other defendants. If Yarborough did not take the witness stand, the judge reasoned, these defendants would not be able to cross-examine Yarborough, and one of an accused person's primary rights is to confront any witness against him.
And so it goes during this dramatic and tragic trial, as "11 distinct egos," in the words of one defense attorney, jockey for position and play to a full house, each lawyer trying to do his best for his client.
As a group, the attorneys range in age from 29 to 49. At least four never tried a murder case before, while two have handled as many as 25. Some have flourishing practices; others are just launching their careers. Three were hired by their clients, while most are court-appointed lawyers representing indigents. Two of the lawyers, teamed to represent one client, are from the city's Public Defender Service.
Many of the judges and lawyers in the courthouse have their favorites and not-so-favorites in this case. Carping about the talents of the various defense lawyers has become a favorite pastime.
"Smart, but arrogant," said a criminal lawyer about one member of the defense team, while another commented that the same person was "arrogant and stupid, a double threat."
Trained legal eyes in the audience either savor or scorn the myriad of defense strategies unfolding in this well-publicized trial. But even for the most casual observer, the vast differences in style are striking.
Take Robert DeBerardinis, 36, theatrical and strutting, a practitioner of the tough-guy approach. "Now you're here to tell the truth . . . " he shouted sarcastically at one prosecution witness. "And the truth is part of your plea bargain . . . and that's why you're here, to tell the truth."
Then there is Michele Roberts, of the Public Defender Service, who at 29 is the youngest lawyer. She is stylish, very businesslike and soft-spoken. When a witness snapped "Show me," concerning a document she had in hand, Roberts answered sweetly, "Of course, Mr. Alston."
Lillian McEwen, 40, a one-time prosecutor, often probes for details, digging in one instance to learn where and when a witness ate chicken wings. She said she does it purposely to "disorient a witness" who is hostile so he will not know when the really important question is coming.
Greta Van Susteren, 31, operates like a seasoned legal technician who does her best to keep her client out of the limelight. Steven Kiersh, 31, pounces on every opportunity to point out to the jury when a prosecution witness says his client was not involved in the brutal murder.
Others just lay back, playing what Grandison Hill calls hide-and-seek. "If you're not representing one of the 'bad guys,' " said Hill, referring to those accused of the perpetrating the most violence, "don't open your mouth unless you have to . . . . Get your guy in the dullest looking clothes, don't let him wear a crucifix or carry a Bible."
"That," said Hill, "is why everybody is looking for severance," which is the legal term for separating the trials of the accused.
The big advantage to the prosecution of having all the cases heard together was summed up by a high-level source in the U.S. attorney's office, which is prosecuting the case: "Our theory of the case is that this was a gang murder. We want to show a gang, and there they are sitting in court."
As the prosecution's case unfolds, defense lawyers, including Lloyd Elsten, Allan Palmer, Wendell Robinson, Corinne Schultz, William Seals and Frederick Sullivan, puzzle over which testimony to tear down and which to build up and just how to best do it.
Palmer, 49, a one-time prosecutor, likes to go for the jugular. When Calvin Alston, who has pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution, said he was now telling the truth because "I'm man enough to face what I did and tell everyone," Palmer shot back, "Were you a man when you were kicking Catherine Fuller?"
Another attorney disagreed with that approach. "I'm not going to call Harry Bennett another prosecution witness or Calvin Alston scum. They can be scum who tell the truth or scum who lies. The point is, whether they are telling the truth."
Several of the attorneys say they worry that the brutal nature of Fuller's death may so offend and anger the jurors that there will be little allowance made for ambiguity and that the defendants may be judged en masse.
Palmer said he disagrees, explaining that "I have a lot of faith in the jurors to pick and choose." And DeBerardinis said he believes "there will be no rush to judgment."
McEwen, whose client, Levy Rouse, is accused of having thrust the pole into Fuller, initially worried about the "frowns" and "discomfort" she saw on the jurors' faces whenever the subject of the violence came up. She said now she believes that "the more often you hear something, the less frightening" it becomes.
"By the time prosecutor Jerry Goren gets up there in closing arguments, he's not going to be able to scare and horrify them any longer," she said.
Several of the attorneys said they are frequently asked how they can defend someone charged with so horrifying a crime. Most give the same answer -- that under the Constitution every defendant is entitled to the best possible defense.
"Of course I am upset by the crime . . . but that is not the point," said Kiersh. "The point is do they have the right people on trial? A great tragedy can occur if someone is sent to jail for his whole life if he did not do this. That would be a tragedy similar in proportion to Mrs. Fuller's death.