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The spin cycle runs dry

In the end, the jury just didn't buy what the Libby defense was selling.

March 07, 2007|Andrew Cohen | ANDREW COHEN is CBS News' chief legal analyst.

IN THE END, even the jurors believed that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was a fall guy for his more savvy and connected colleagues in the White House, many of whom tried to use elite members of the media to cut the legs out from under an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's Iraq war policy. The problem for Libby, though, is that there is no recognized fall-guy defense under the law. No matter how important or powerful they are, no matter how many cohorts get off scot-free, the Joe Schmo left holding the bag is usually in trouble

That's just one of the relevant takeaways from Tuesday's verdict in Libby's federal perjury and obstruction of justice trial in Washington. Another is that, no matter how dry, dense and technical the law may be, it still can from time to time stop cold even the most flamboyant spin that bureaucrats, officials and politicians have to offer. Libby's lawyers were still spinning Tuesday after the verdict, but their words were as empty as their client's defense turned out to be.

There is no mystery to the result here. A jury of seven women and four men convicted Libby because Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald strongly presented a strong case. Government witnesses were focused and likable and, most of all, appeared trustworthy -- even the journalists who were dragged kicking and screaming to the witness stand. All of them helped convince the panel from many different angles that it was legally inconceivable that Libby could have simply made a mistake when asked under oath by federal agents, prosecutors and grand jurors what he knew about Valerie Plame and when he knew it.

Jurors also convicted Libby because the defense case that his lawyers offered was porous and weak. In all likelihood, the panel doomed him to prison partly because he didn't haul himself to the witness stand and explain to jurors how he reasonably could have forgotten the details of a special project -- the political and perhaps personal destruction of Plame and her husband, Joseph C. Wilson lV -- so soon after being so heavily involved in it. They said with their verdict that they wanted more from Libby's lawyers. More witnesses. More evidence. More compelling reasons to vote "no" on conviction. They got none of these things.

Some trials are hard to explain. This one wasn't. And it was never destined to be. Legally speaking, the case was a simple one. United States vs. Libby was always more about politics than law; more about how the witnesses and evidence would play in the court of public opinion than in the courtroom. That is what makes Tuesday's verdicts even more disheartening to White House officials and their supporters. Not only did Libby lose the legal case against Fitzgerald, the White House lost the political case on the talk shows and online blogs and everywhere else where people care about such things.

So now we move to the next phase. Even as they prepare a no-doubt futile motion for a new trial and look for grounds for an appeal, Libby's lawyers also will begin preparing their client for his sentencing in June. Some legal observers believe that Libby somehow will avoid prison for these crimes. I am not among them. U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton is likely to sentence Libby to a prison term that is at least twice as long as the prison sentence Martha Stewart received when she lost her federal perjury and obstruction of justice case in 2004. The domestic diva got five months in prison and five months' home detention. Don't be surprised if Libby gets two years or more in prison.

But Libby won't be doing his perp walk anytime soon. Walton will almost certainly allow him to avoid prison pending the resolution of his appeal. That is likely to take a year or so, depending on a variety of factors, which puts us well into 2008 before this all comes back to a head. The smart money is on Libby losing his appeal and going to prison, and then we all wait to find out whether he is among those who President Bush pardons on his way out of office.

Tuesday was a day the spinning stopped in Washington. But it never stays stopped for long.

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