Nick Coleman: Death by a thousand cuts as recount trial opens

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN
  • Star Tribune
  • January 26, 2009 - 11:11 PM

It was vintage Joe Friedberg, the sardonic criminal defense attorney who has become lead lawyer for Norm Coleman in his last-gasp attempt to stay in the Senate.

"In another country, we'd settle this in a different way, probably with guns and knives," Friedberg said during his opening statement Monday in the Senate recount trial. For a second or two, Friedberg left it hanging, as if, come to think of it, guns and knives might be better. But then he came back to the rule of law, with a common sense defense of Minnesota's voters, who he seemed to suggest are not exceptionally bright. "We don't have smart people counties and dumb people counties," he said, which would make a good new slogan for our license plates.

Friedberg stands in court with one arm stretched to the podium and the other stuck on his hip, elbow cocked, like Napoleon viewing the field of honor. But his face is a prankster's, and he looks like the kid who always knew how to sneak under the left field fence to get into the old Met Stadium. Don't underestimate him: If you get arrested with a smoking gun in your hand, call Joe.

Al Franken was absent Monday, out impersonating a U.S. senator somewhere. But Norm was on hand, sitting glumly at the same table as Friedberg, which usually means you are looking at 20 to life. But in this case, Norm is known as "the contestant," because he came up 225 votes short when the Canvassing Board returned its decision and he is contesting the results. Contestant Coleman looked 10 years older than he did two months ago, and was as gray as his surroundings.

Not a cheery environment

Please don't let the national media see inside our judicial center, the big, boring box of law that squats where my mom's old high school, Mechanic Arts, used to stand. The main courtroom is on the third floor but, despite its elevation, feels like a cave: dark, drab, depressing. I thought I could hear water dripping and stalagmites growing. They could reach the ceiling by the time this thing is over, and it would be smart to check the actuarial tables to see if Franken or Coleman have a chance of living long enough to take the oath. Even the three judges presiding over the trial -- picked by Supreme Court Justice Alan Page -- looked stricken, as if wondering what they had done to Page to make him do this to them.

A very long hour

I felt my own life ebbing away when Friedberg put his first witness on the stand, a 27-year-old "political director" for the Coleman campaign. Her appearance was supposed to be a quick one, but Franken attorney Marc Elias tortured her for an hour with questions about multiple photocopies of multiple ballots. It was the most objectionable hour I've seen in court, beginning with Elias objecting to her being on the stand at all. But Friedberg is a conscientious objector in his own right and cannot be Out Objectioned.

He objected 10 times, enough to make everyone in court know that they won't see the sun until June. Then, he said "No objection" to something. I expected rows of reporters to dash to the phones.

Friedberg keeps it interesting. I once wrote about a case where a young woman was beaten to death. The victim had been found in her boyfriend's car, but Friedberg argued that someone else might have killed her and told the jury a yarn about a blueberry pie. One day, a farmer's son sees a pie cooling on a windowsill. The kid eats the pie. When he sees his dad coming in for lunch, the kid puts the pie dish on the floor, sticks the dog's snout in the pie and runs. The farmer sees the dog with pie on its face and gets out his 12-gauge.

Goodbye, Lassie.

Convicting his client would be like shooting the dog who "ate" the blueberry pie, Friedberg said. His client was acquitted.

Back in court Monday, Friedberg was pulling out fat three-ring binders loaded with photocopies of absentee ballots. There are 5,000 that need to be looked at, one by one, he said. I stood up and ran out the door, hoping to get the rest of my kids through college before we know who our senator is.

But I looked back one last time as I left: Contestant Coleman seemed to have even more gray hair than when I had come in.

I had less. • 612-673-4400

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