NEWARK, N.J. — A defense attorney thundered in closing arguments Monday in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing trial that Gov. Chris Christie and his inner circle were “cowards” for not testifying against a former staffer on trial for allegedly using gridlock for political retaliation.
In an emotional presentation that lasted more than two hours, Michael Critchley cast client Bridget Kelly as a single mother faced with an administration more concerned with keeping Christie’s nascent presidential hopes alive than with exposing the truth when details of the scandal surfaced three years ago.
In a rebuttal summation, a prosecutor urged jurors to ignore the insinuations about Christie and others and focus on the evidence against the two defendants, which he called “devastating.”
Jurors began deliberations Monday as the trial entered its seventh week.
Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a former executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were named in a nine-count indictment in 2015 on charges that they schemed to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for not endorsing Christie. They face up to 20 years in prison on the most serious counts.
The scandal involving the nation’s busiest bridge, which connects Fort Lee and Manhattan, unfolded at a time when Christie was on the brink of a runaway reelection victory and was considered a top Republican presidential contender. He wasn’t charged, but the story dogged him through his failed presidential bid.
Kelly testified during the trial that she told Christie about the lane closures a month before they happened, something the governor has adamantly denied. Critchley reminded jurors Monday that the government didn’t call Christie to say that under oath.
Cupping his hands as if holding a megaphone, Critchley practically yelled, “Chris Christie, where are you?”
Kelly was “the odd person out,” Critchley said. “The inner circle, they know what the code is: ‘Chris Christie knows nothing.’ Bridget Kelly has a different version, and that makes her dangerous. They want that mother of four to take the fall for them. Cowards. Cowards.”
In his rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna said the case wasn’t about who could have been charged or who could have been called to testify.
Critchley “wants you to make it about whether Chris Christie lied,” he told jurors. “He wants to distract you from the core of the case. Why? Because the evidence against his client is devastating.”
Kelly and Baroni testified earlier in the trial that they believed former Port Authority official David Wildstein when he told them the realignment of access lanes to the bridge in September 2013 was part of a traffic study. Massive gridlock ensued, and pleas from Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, went unanswered for four days — on orders from Wildstein, the defendants testified.
Critchley on Monday called Wildstein, a high school classmate of Christie’s who pleaded guilty last year, “the Bernie Madoff of New Jersey politics.” Wildstein testified that Kelly and Baroni were fully aware of the scheme to punish Sokolich.
Kelly wrote the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email the month before the lane closures. She deleted that email and others, she testified, because she was scared that people in Christie’s administration who knew of the closures weren’t being forthcoming.