SPRING: SPECIAL DIETS AND RELIGION
Thomas Bednar is a long way from his youth in Cedar Rapids. He laughs recalling the time when two teenage girls who were witnesses in a case had to explain to him what the phrase “Kirking out” meant. It’s a reference to Star Trek’s Captain Kirk that means being spaced out on drugs.
Before he became a line assistant, much of Bednar’s knowledge of the drug trade came from the HBO series The Wire. Now he talks with ease about the way a typical drug deal goes down.
On March 16, he’s trying his fourth jury trial, against a man charged with selling crack cocaine to an undercover officer. He won guilty verdicts in the first three.
The hitch in this case is that the defendant wasn’t the one who actually gave the drugs to the officer. Another man, whom Bednar argues the defendant was using as a go-between, made the transaction.
Bednar’s first witness, the undercover police officer who bought the drugs, testified that this is a typical maneuver used by drug dealers to avoid getting caught. As payback for helping, the officer said, the go-between will usually get money or drugs.
Now the alleged go-between—we’ll call him Leon—is on the stand. He’s the defense’s only witness. During direct examination, it becomes apparent that Leon has a mental disability. His responses are rambling and often mumbled and hard to understand.
One thing is clear from the defense lawyer’s line of questioning: Leon is claiming he sold the drugs in order to pay for a prostitute. He says the defendant had nothing to do with it.
When it’s Bednar’s turn to question Leon, it’s a moment that displays the stark contrast between Bednar’s own background and the experiences of many of the civilians who come through DC Superior Court.
Because he realizes Leon is prone to veering off topic, Bednar has written down a few objectives he hopes to accomplish during the cross-examination to help them both stay focused.
Bednar is self-conscious that he’s a thirtysomething white lawyer questioning an African-American drug addict in his fifties. Though he needs to be firm with Leon, he doesn’t want to come off to the jurors as disrespectful or demeaning to this man who is much older than he is and obviously from difficult circumstances. Bednar has experience working with witnesses with mental disabilities from his time on misdemeanor domestic-violence cases, so he can at least rely on that.
He succeeds in getting some clear answers out of Leon, who directly contradicts the testimony of the officers who made the drug bust. For instance, Leon says he handed the drugs through the window of the undercover officer’s van, while the officer said he got out of the car to buy the drugs. Bednar could possibly use these contradictions to attack Leon’s credibility as a witness.
But the questioning doesn’t totally go Bednar’s way. He asks Leon if drug dealers sell to people they consider snitches—the implication being that Leon is lying for the defendant to keep his drug supply from drying up. The defense attorney objects to the question, and the judge sides with him.
Closing arguments wrap up by 3 pm, and the jurors leave to begin deliberations. By 4:45, they still haven’t reached a verdict, so they’ll have to try again in the morning.
During the short walk back to the US Attorney’s Office, Bednar ticks off the list of concerns that are already on his mind. He’s worried he was too flippant with Leon. There’s also a juror who appeared to him to be losing patience.
But he doesn’t have much time to dwell on the day’s trial—even though it’s past 5, he still has a staff meeting to attend and more cases to prep.
The following afternoon, he’ll learn that the jury was hung, unable to reach a verdict. Some jurors wanted more physical evidence, such as fingerprints taken from the Ziploc bags of drugs.
The line assistants often complain that jurors unrealistically want the kind of evidence they see on TV shows such as CSI.
Next time, Bednar will consider putting on an expert witness who can testify that it is nearly impossible to get fingerprints off of a plastic bag.
Thomas is elevated to felony cases by the end of April, about the time the doctors first utter the word “cancer.” At one point, they tell Thomas she may have leukemia. But they aren’t sure.
They’ve determined that Thomas’s body isn’t processing enough nutrients from her food. They’ve been putting her on special diets to see if her body will respond positively.
The only people Thomas has told about her health problems are her supervisors and three fellow AUSAs. She’s grateful for how supportive they’ve been. When the doctors took Thomas off of solid foods for one of the diets, her supervisors offered to stock her office with liquids.
But the work doesn’t stop, and Thomas is still putting in the same 12-to-15-hour days she was when she was handling misdemeanors.
Still, she doesn’t regret her decision to join the office, though she admits the stress is probably a factor in her health. “I am a woman of faith,” says Thomas. “I know that God has a purpose for my life.”
For now, being an assistant US Attorney is a part of that purpose.