Defense begins in Currie trial

Attorneys for state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie, on trial for extortion and related charges, began his defense Monday by calling a witness who portrayed the Prince George's County legislator as endlessly pleasant, but not very bright.

"On the smart [scale], he's right at the bottom," Timothy F. Maloney, a lawyer and former Maryland delegate, testified as the first witness for the defense. "On the nice [scale], he's right at the top."

Currie, a former teacher, has a master's degree in education, and he held one of the most powerful positions in the state legislature as chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Yet, according to Maloney, Currie is also "not very astute," his ability to remember and relay information is "just not good," and "no one would call him smart."

It's an unflattering strategy signaling that the defense doesn't plan to argue the facts in the case, but instead will try to explain them away, legal and political analysts said.

"I've termed it the 'I'm an idiot defense,'" said Peter J. Henning, a Detroit law professor who recently published a book about legal strategies used in public corruption cases.

Currie is accused, along with two former executives from Shoppers Food Warehouse, of using a public-relations consulting contract to cover up a $245,000 bribery scheme that bought legislative favors for the food chain.

Prosecutors have shown that the contract existed, though the defense team says the arrangement was innocent and suggested through testimony Monday that Currie wasn't intelligent enough to mastermind an extortion scheme — a "classic empty head, pure heart defense," according to Henning.

"If you can't deny the action, then deny the intent," Henning said. "They're using this witness to at least raise the question with the jury: 'Did he really understand?'… Not understanding what you're doing can be an excuse."

Assistant Federal Public Defender Joseph Evans, who represents Currie, did not return messages Monday seeking comment.

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried the so-called "idiot defense" during his corruption trial last year, when his attorney claimed in closing arguments that the politician was not "the sharpest knife in the drawer," Henning said. And CEOs have long used a variation of it — the ignorance defense — to distance themselves from their troubled companies, lawyers said.

Media giant Rupert Murdoch said he wasn't aware of his company's alleged phone hacking tactics, Kenneth Lay claimed to be unaware of issues at Enron, and Richard Scrushy said he didn't know about fraud at HealthSouth Corp.

"In that respect it is a tried — I would say tried, I'm not sure how true it is —" strategy, said Andrew D. Levy, a Baltimore defense attorney who also teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law.

To "say this guy isn't the sharpest tack on the board" is a brazen way to make the point, Levy said. How the jury will perceive it is another matter, he added.

"Juries are very reluctant to believe that the people who we've entrusted to this very important work" might not be very smart, Levy said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise grew hot while cross-examining Maloney, suggesting it was beyond belief that Currie could be unintelligent, given his background. But Maloney, who said he considers Currie a wonderful man "second to none" when it comes to people skills, wouldn't budge from the assessment.

He was the first in what's expected to be a steady stream of character witnesses for the senator. Maloney said he has known Currie for 25 years, working with him in the legislature as a delegate for nearly a decade and afterward as a lawyer who gave the senator legal advice.

When Currie came to him in late 2002 with questions about forming a business relationship with Shoppers, Maloney testified that he wrote a letter on Currie's behalf to company executives, laying the boundaries for a public relations contract, because he didn't trust Currie to coherently produce the document on his own.

Currie's ability to "remember things" and "communicate them to other people … it's just not good," Maloney said, adding that Currie frequently "garbled up" information.

Such claims are a way of arguing that the defendant lacked criminal intent, lawyers said. But it may not help Currie's political career, said Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus within the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University.

"I don't think it's going to be good for getting re-elected," Crenson said. "Assuming [he] gets off, I think this does almost as much damage as a guilty verdict."