SAN DIEGO — In a dramatic development that stunned courtroom observers, the defense in Mayor Roger Hedgecock's felony retrial rested Tuesday without presenting a single witness, setting the stage for the case to go to the jury next week.
Describing the prosecution's case as a "sand castle . . . that crumbled," Hedgecock's attorney, Oscar Goodman, explained his bold strategic gambit by saying that he felt no need to present a defense "because it's very clear to us that the prosecution has not met its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
"Our feeling was, their witnesses were our witnesses . . . and so there was no need to present a defense," Goodman told reporters after his dramatic courtroom announcement shortly before noon.
About 10 minutes earlier, Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Wickersham, who presented 61 prosecution witnesses over 17 days, had rested his case. Because of Yom Kippur and Superior Court Judge William L. Todd Jr.'s plans to attend a judicial conference, closing arguments in the case are scheduled for next week.
Goodman, a Las Vegas lawyer widely regarded as one of the top criminal attorneys in the West, jokingly referred to his hometown while explaining that he decided not to put on a defense "because there was nothing to add through any foreseeable witness which would substantially affect the jury's picture of the case."
"I'm from Las Vegas--there was no gamble," Goodman said of his decision. Hedgecock initially wanted to testify on his own behalf, the defense attorney added, but later agreed that he did not need to do so because his major arguments were brought to the jury's attention through Goodman's cross-examination of prosecution witnesses.
Wickersham, though, admitted later that even he was caught off guard by Goodman's strategic maneuver.
"I'm surprised they didn't put on a case, quite frankly," Wickersham said, dismissing Goodman's comments about what he sees as the weaknesses in the prosecution's case as "just propaganda for the hallway." Asked whether he perceived Goodman's strategy as risky, Wickersham replied, "You bet! Absolutely!"
Goodman, confident that he had already built his case through his cross-examinations, had said previously that he expected to spend less than a week in presenting Hedgecock's defense. That projected timetable had prompted widespread conjecture about whether Hedgecock would take the stand in his own defense, as he had in his first trial, which ended in a mistrial in February with the jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction.
Most of the jurors from the first trial said that they found Hedgecock's three days of testimony to be unpersuasive, adding that they believed that the mayor had seriously hurt his own case by taking the stand--a perception that Goodman conceded concerned him as he pondered his tactics for the retrial.
Despite the questions over whether Hedgecock would testify, Goodman's decision not to present any witnesses was a wholly unexpected one that electrified the courtroom minutes after the prosecution's case had ended--by contrast, rather undramatically--with the lengthy reading of a transcript of a March, 1984, interview in which Hedgecock was questioned by officials of the state Fair Political Practices Commission about his personal and campaign finances.
After a brief recess in which he conferred with Hedgecock, Goodman told the eight-woman, four-man jury, "If it please the court, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Mayor Hedgecock rests."
Wickersham reacted to the bombshell with a dazed expression, while several of the jurors leaned back in their chairs and raised their eyebrows; other jurors had quizzical, somewhat confused, expressions.
Goodman's decision not to present a defense--a strategy that he said he has often employed with success before--was, to a large degree, based on a major difference in prosecutors' styles between the two trials. In the first trial, former Assistant Dist. Atty. Richard D. Huffman normally limited his questioning of witnesses to narrow areas that, in general, reflected favorably on the prosecution's case--a tactic that compelled defense attorney Michael Pancer to later call many of the same witnesses and new ones to present counterbalancing evidence.
However, Wickersham, who replaced Huffman after his appointment to the Superior Court bench last spring, examined witnesses on a much wider scope of subjects--an approach that, in the words of J. Michael McDade, a lawyer and Hedgecock's former chief of staff, "opened the barn door" and allowed Goodman to score key points through cross-examination.
"It's an excellent strategic move," McDade said of Goodman's decision. "It put the entire burden of the case on the shoulders of the district attorney, where it should be in a criminal case."