by Steve Miller
copyright © 1996, Electric Nevada
|Jerry Keenan, said a federal jury Thursday, was guilty of lying to federal agents investigating an attempted bombing of Internal Revenue Services offices last December in Reno.|
| But how strong was the evidence
behind the conviction -- really?
According to Keenan defense attorney Ben Walker, "The government didn't even come close to meeting their burden of proof.
If we can be hauled into a court on that kind of evidence," said Walker, "we're all at risk."
And later, to Electric Nevada, he said what the verdict actually showed was "a little prejudicial spill-over" from the coming trial of the main bombing suspect, Joseph Bailie.
After all, the defense counsel emphasized, when two federal agents got Keenan out of bed in the middle of the night a couple of days after the bomb was discovered, the 53-year-old nurseryman did help them, providing information which eventually led them to the chief suspect, now indicted.
Nevertheless, said Walker, that hadn't seemed to matter to the government.
"Because he didn't remember, he got indicted," he told the jury. "Doesn't that send a message that if the agents come to your house, you should shut the door in their faces?
Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, argued in their summation to jurors that the help Keenan gave was not significant for two reasons: he was not definite enough, and the investigators already had much of the information he gave them.
"How is he helping by waffling on numbers, or waffling on names?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Rachow, of Reno. And Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Connell, of Las Vegas, argued that Keenan had demonstrated, even in his personal testimony before the jury, an indifference to the truth.
"That is not so important when it's a question of whether there were 20 or 6 in the coffee klatch.. but when it's whether Joe Bailie has planted a bomb, you don't have that luxury," argued O'Connell.
Keenan had, at different times, given different answers to questions about the number of people who congregated for early morning coffee and dominoes at his Green Valley Garden Center. One answer had been six; another had been 20.
In the context of the trial it became clear that the first answer had to do with the number of people who made up the core of the group and frequented the gathering most often. The second answer had to do with the total number of people who, at different times, dropped in.
But the taciturn Keenan nearly always gives short, clipped, answers, and habitually does not explain. That was his pattern in his federal grand jury testimony, it was his pattern testifying in his own trial for perjury, and it was his pattern -- apparent to any observer-- in conversation with friends, family and supporters outside the courtroom during recesses.
And it was a pattern federal prosecutors used to their advantage against the Gardnerville businessman. For though the government never actually contended that Keenan had known "whether Joe Bailie has planted a bomb," the point that IF Bailie had planted a bomb, and IF Keenan had given his habitual terse, clipped, answers, it could have been a problem, seemed to speak to the jury.
"The pattern and the tenor and the limited information that the defendant gave before the Grand Jury bespeak a pattern of disregard for the truth," argued O'Connell. He pointed out that in one response Keenan said he had known of Joe Bailie "three or four years", and in another response, "eight to ten." In their summations both O'Connell and fellow assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Rachow heaped scorn upon what they called Keenan's "very convenient memory," his "fudging" and his "self-serving statements."
"A pattern of disregard for the truth"? Perhaps to some degree, if one uses an absolute, or exact, standard -- one that government prosecutors, it should be noted, also have no chance at all of meeting.
The core questions of the trial came down to paragraph B of count one -- the allegation by the government that Keenan had lied when he told investigators that "Joseph Bailie had been present at the Green Valley Nursery only once, at a time which was several months before the December 17 attempted bombing."
On that particular point, the jury apparently chose to believe it too much of a stretch that Keenan had simply had a failure of memory. On this point, the jury even discounted the testimony of the government's star witness, Del Bidart. Bidart, a member of the morning coffee group at Keenan's nursery for several years, had acknowleged in cross- examination that Keenan did have a bad memory.
What federal prosecutors succesfully exploited, to win their conviction, was an unlovely mannerism of Jerry Keenan -- an habitual ingrained pattern of conversational behavior, where Keenan tends to blurt out whatever is foremost on his mind, even when it might not be directly responsive to the question asked, or even when it might -- in others' eyes -- require more explanation.
A bit like politicians who answer TV journalist's questions with whatever rap they want to give, Keenan seems to have, over the years, developed a habit of reflexively answering
whatever she feels is most salient or
relevant or important, even if sometimes not to the point
of what's been asked, and even if, to others, it can be
somewhat grating. Coupled with the memory lapse during
the agents' middle-of-the-night visit, it seems to have
made the difference.
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