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Brown: In federal court, Beavers was the hog with the big nothing for jurors

Charged with tax fraud Cook County Commissioner William Beavers (right) is accompanied by attorney Sam Adam (left) as they leave

Charged with tax fraud, Cook County Commissioner William Beavers (at right) is accompanied by attorney Sam Adam (at left) as they leave the Dirksen Federal Building on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 22, 2013 12:32PM

Some day I’ll learn my lesson that these high profile criminal defendants, the politicians in particular, almost never testify in their own defense.

Fooled again, this time by Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, whose pre-trial bluster probably should have been the tip-off.

If ever there was going to be an exception to the defendant standing mute, I thought surely it would be the self-proclaimed “Hog with the big nuts” who would get up there on the witness stand and show off that baritone.

He’d stare daggers at the prosecutors, speak his mind and sprinkle in a few colorful expressions along with some choice words not to be repeated in a family newspaper — the usual stuff of a conversation with Beavers. It would be great theater — or so went my wishful thinking.

Instead, Beavers bailed at the finish line just like another guy who talked big until the time came, Rod Blagojevich, with whom he bears no other resemblance except in their choice of defense lawyers.

In confirming to U.S. District Judge James Zagel his decision to give up his right to testify, Beavers raised his voice only to ask Zagel to speak up. The 78-year-old former 7th Ward alderman has a hearing problem for which he has been outfitted with headphones during the trial.

Now the only thing standing between Beavers and a short stay in a federal penitentiary is the ability of his lawyer Sam Adam Jr. to spin a web in his closing argument without getting himself entangled by a damning set of facts.

Adam has succeeded many times before in this endeavor, even with Blagojevich, for whom his legal team won a hung jury on most counts at the ex-governor’s first trial.

But that was a long, complicated trial, and this was a short, fairly straightforward one. The issue: did Beavers intentionally fail to pay income taxes on campaign funds and a county expense allowance that he converted to personal use?

I hope Beavers didn’t make his decision thinking the jury was bound to side with him, because he may be sorely disappointed.

One of his other lawyers, Sheldon Sorosky, blamed Zagel for Beavers’ decision, telling the judge that Beavers had intended to testify until Zagel damaged the defense case by disallowing most of the planned testimony of an expert witness.

That didn’t strike me as believable. More likely, as a former police officer, Beavers probably appreciated better than most politician defendants the dangers of opening himself up to cross-examination.

The expert witness, accountant Barry Gershinzon, had intended to buttress defense contentions that Beavers had only borrowed the campaign funds and that he was the victim of bookkeeping mistakes by the city and county.

Zagel, who had made it clear from the start of the trial that the best way for Beavers to put in such evidence was to testify for himself, brushed off Sorosky’s assertion.

As questionable as I found Gershinzon’s proposed testimony, it’s not the first time I came away from a trial wishing Zagel had allowed the defendant to put on his defense. I don’t think prosecutors would have had any trouble eviscerating it afterward.

During jury selection, Beavers’ lawyers loudly decried a shortage of African-American males in the jury pool, suggesting it was intentional. In the end, there was one African-American woman selected to the jury — and two selected as alternates, which I mention in case it comes up again after the verdict.

In his opening statement, Adam hinted to jurors that prosecutors had a hidden agenda in pursuing Beavers.

By trial’s end, he said, jurors “are gonna know it ain’t got nothing to do with taxes . . . you’re gonna know why he’s sitting there and you’re sitting here.”

That was a reference to Beavers’ pre-trial assertions that he had refused to cooperate in an investigation of fellow Cook County Commissioner John Daley and had been vindictively punished as a result.

With Beavers failing to testify, the jury heard no such alternate explanation for why they’ve been sitting there the past week.

Turns out Beavers wasn’t such a big gambler after all.

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