Tire-slashing trial to begin
National scrutiny returns for 5 accused of waylaying GOP-rented cars
By DERRICK NUNNALLY
Posted: Jan. 8, 2006
Fourteen months after President George W. Bush was re-elected without carrying Wisconsin, five men who worked for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, including the sons of two prominent Milwaukee politicians, go on trial today on felony counts of vandalism in the tire-slashing of more than 20 vehicles rented by Republican campaigners.
The incident, and the felony charges filed two months later, drew Milwaukee national attention from political partisans, against a backdrop of allegations of election fraud in the city. Only a handful of criminal charges of election fraud have been filed, and U.S. Attorney Steven M. Biskupic has said that no evidence of a conspiracy has been discovered despite an extensive investigation.
Yet the arrival of the tire-slashing trial in another election year could again draw scrutiny to the state of politics in Milwaukee.
Cable network Court TV is covering the trial, which, with five defendants being tried together, is expected to last two weeks. The witness list includes national AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), as well as 77 others, including political operatives from both major parties, FBI agents, Milwaukee police officers and a representative of a Firestone tire center.
Not all of them are certain to be called into Circuit Judge Michael B. Brennan's courtroom. A spokesman for Jackson's office said Friday that the office had not received a subpoena or other official notification that Jackson, who was in Milwaukee for Election Day 2004 and may have spoken with some parties involved in the case, would be required to testify.
Plenty of possible jurors
What apparently will be required is dozens more potential jurors than usual for a criminal trial's jury pool. Brennan would not say how large the jury pool assembled today will be. However, his courtroom, which has two jury boxes, had signs on half of its gallery seats Friday afternoon reserving them for Monday's jury pool, which appeared to create seating space for more than 70 potential jurors in the room at once.
"One of the problems is going to be finding people who are willing to give up two weeks of their life to sit for a trial," said Rodney Cubbie, defense attorney for Michael Pratt, son of former acting Mayor Marvin Pratt.
Cubbie's client, and the other four men charged in the case - Sowande Omokunde, the son of U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Milwaukee; Lewis G. Caldwell; Lavelle Mohammad; and Justin Howell -face up to 3 1/2 years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted of felony property damage in the case.
The trial will ultimately turn on whether Assistant District Attorney David Feiss can tie the five men to $4,192.35 in tire damage, plus $1,125 in towing charges, inflicted outside Republican Party headquarters on W. Capitol Drive in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 2, 2004.
Based on testimony given last year in the preliminary hearing, there is no eyewitness who can identify the men as the vandals. There is a security guard who says he saw someone scurrying in the dark, acting drunk and urinating on a wall. There are police and the Firestone representative, who are to testify about the damage found and the repairs required.
Then there is the bulk of the alleged link between the defendants and the slashed tires: their purported statements in the weeks before the election about planning hijinks on GOP headquarters dubbed "Operation Elephant Takeover" and what they were heard saying after they returned to Democratic Party headquarters about the same time as the police say the tires were cut.
Four of the five men - all but Howell - are quoted by others in the criminal complaint as saying they took part. Howell's attorney, Jeffrey Purnell, said the evidence against his client "does look like it's different" than the cases against the other four defendants, but he declined to say whether Howell has been offered a deal to get out of the charges.
"It looks like he shouldn't be here," Purnell said.