James Gill: Jenkins on hot seat after Nagin verdict

Robert Jenkins must have flung Sunday’s paper across the room when he discovered that the top story on Page 1 went on at some length about what a crummy job he just did.

So spare a thought for Jenkins. Everyone quoted in the story seemed staggered by his ineptitude as defense counsel for ex-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin; the embarrassment must have been acute.

There’s a couple of consolations, however. Jenkins’ discomfiture came in the rarefied atmosphere of federal court, whereas he is usually to be found alongside desperadoes at Tulane and Broad. His competence is proven in state court, where his services will no doubt remain in high demand.

Jurors, other defense attorneys and all who attended Nagin’s trial, moreover, are convinced that this was a case Perry Mason couldn’t have won, so overwhelming was the evidence. The only useful service defense counsel could have rendered was persuading Nagin to take a plea deal. Jenkins knew it was so; he professed himself surprised when the indictment was handed up early last year because he was negotiating on Nagin’s behalf with prosecutors. But Nagin dithered too long and they lost patience.

Nagin is so bull-headed that it would have taken a silver tongue to make him see reason. And, as we have just been painfully reminded in federal court, Jenkins is not the most eloquent of advocates. Nagin will wish he had been prevailed upon to cop a plea. Word around the courthouse is that he turned down two years pre-indictment, and five post. Then, just as the prosecution was winding up its case in court and not even Nagin could still kid himself he had a chance, he offered to plead guilty to the tax evasion counts if the feds would forget about all those shakedowns.

If they didn’t laugh in his face, it was only because their mamas raised them polite. And if Nagin isn’t kicking himself right now, it’s only because the electronic monitor he must wear while he awaits sentencing would get in the way.

Judge Ginger Berrigan is known for a soft heart toward the less fortunate, but a mayor on the take is by no means assured of her sympathy. Besides, judges generally hew to the sentencing guidelines, which were not drawn up by a committee of bleeding hearts.

Nagin, former part-owner of an ice hockey team, has been under house arrest since he was convicted on 20 counts, so he’s probably been sitting on his sofa watching the Winter Olympics. Chances are he’ll have to follow the next five from the pen.

Why Nagin hired Jenkins was a mystery from the start, given that there are plenty of defense attorneys in town who have done sterling work in federal court. Jenkins also had represented Aaron Broussard, the crooked former president of Jefferson Parish, but he, being smarter than Nagin, had copped a plea and taken his 46 months. The best guess was that Nagin had not managed to steal enough to cover expenses, so could not afford a high flier. For Jenkins, the case might have seemed worth taking at a relatively modest fee for the sake of the enormous publicity that would attend it. He got the publicity all right, but it won’t necessarily be good for business.

The feds, as Earl Long famously reminded Leander Perez, last of the red-hot segregationists, got the A-bomb, so the defense is frequently outgunned. But it was obvious from opening arguments that this time it was no contest. Prosecutor Matt Coman took his allotted 45 minutes to deliver a meticulously prepared statement, with graphics and photographs projected onto a large screen. When Jenkins’ turn came, he winged it, and sat down after 12 minutes. So it continued until Nagin’s goose was cooked.

Nagin, according to Jenkins, took the stand expecting to be acquitted, apparently in the belief that his charm would sway the jury. A wise counsel would have reminded him that it didn’t work for former Gov. Edwin Edwards, and he actually has some charm.

But before that a wise counsel would have reminded Nagin that Edwards also rejected a two-year deal and had ample leisure to regret that decision in prison. Edwards’ sentence was 10 years, which must look pretty good to Nagin right now.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.