Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!
Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007 | As the lawyers wrangled over her husband’s future, Chrysta Coronado, wife of embattled environmental activist Rod Coronado pressed a small leather Native American medicine pouch to her chest. Inside was a clutch of buffalo fur, some dried sage and a few gifts from Coronado’s children.
Whether the charms will work their magic for Coronado will be decided at some point, probably in the next few days. The jurors who have heard Coronado’s case, which began last week, began deliberating late Monday after a day of courtroom drama that would have made any Hollywood producer proud.
On the Case
Coronado has been charged under a seldom-used federal law that prohibits individuals from teaching or demonstrating the making or use of an explosive device with the intent that passing on the information will lead to further crimes.
The charges relate to a 2003 speech Coronado made in Hillcrest. After the speech, Coronado was asked about an incendiary device he used several years earlier to burn down a fur farm in Michigan. He responded by describing how he made the Molotov cocktail-type device, using an apple juice jug sitting on the desk in front of him as a prop.
On Monday, the rather droll words of the obscure federal statute Coronado has been charged under were brought to life in one-man reenactments by a veteran civil rights attorney of scenes from the Boston Tea Party, the Great Depression, a 1930s San Francisco longshoreman’s hall and a small town in the South during the civil rights era.
The performances by trial lawyer J. Tony Serra, who once defended members of the Black Panthers, did more than entertain the jurors, attorneys, assorted press corps and supporters of Coronado. They sought to illustrate Serra’s interpretation of what Coronado’s case is really all about: Freedom of speech and the first amendment.
With his wild white hair and ponytail crowning his balding pate, Serra began by saying he would be making his closing argument in sotto voce — a term that he explained to the jury as meaning speaking softly. That would be in stark contrast, he said, to the bombast of prosecuting attorney John Parmley, who had started the day’s session.
Before long, however, Serra’s gloves were off.
His gravelly voice reaching pitches that at times sounded almost absurdly theatrical, Serra began by reiterating the orders of Judge Jeffrey Miller: That the jury must find not only that Coronado showed his audience how to make an incendiary device, but that it was imminent and likely that someone in the audience would go out and commit a crime.
Imminent. Imminent, imminent, imminent.
That one word was almost all Serra said for the next 30 minutes. Later, prosecuting attorney Michael Skerlos claimed Serra said the word 38 times in the first 10 minutes of his nearly three-hour-long statement.
After reading out a number of synonyms for the word “imminent,” Serra settled on “immediate,” highlighting his point by projecting the words “Imminent = Immediate” on the large screen at the side of the courtroom.
That’s where the Boston Tea Party came in.
Serra sought to use scenes from history to show the jury what he considered the difference between free speech, as protected by the Constitution, and unprotected free speech, as barred by the statute Coronado has been charged with.
In each scene he acted out, Serra described what he considered protected speech: “The British are robbing us blind, we hate them, no taxation without representation,” and unprotected speech: “Come with me and burn their boats, throw their tea in the ocean.”
The line between ideas and action was a stark one, Serra said, and it was not a line which Coronado crossed in 2003. Coronado had not incited the crowd to go out and immediately commit arson, Serra said, there was no call to arms and therefore his client’s speech was protected.
Coronado merely disseminated his ideas, laced them with rhetoric and stirred in some history, Serra said. Coronado was like the longshoreman in 1930s San Francisco, arguing vehemently for unionization, and not like the longshoreman who called for his mates to come with him and burn the freight sitting unpacked in the harbor, the lawyer said.
“In the marketplace of ideas, every idea is welcome,” Serra said. “That’s the beauty of a free society: Free speech.”
One silver-capped tooth glinting in the stark lights of the courtroom, his tie askew, Serra then drew imaginary circles on the courtroom floor before the jury.
As he stepped into each circle, Serra embodied himself as each stage of a jury’s decision-making. In one circle he was a jury believing it was possible Coronado was guilty. Not good enough, he stressed, the jury must be sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, of Coronado’s guilt or they must acquit.
Using the same reasoning, Serra stepped into and out of circles representing a jury thinking it was probable Coronado was guilty, or even that his guilt was clear and convincing. Each imaginary circle was kicked aside with a shrill cry of “Not guilty,” from Serra.
“If this case was submitted to a computer, without emotion, there would be a quick retort from that mechanical mind: Not guilty,” he said.
After a break for lunch, Serra set to work attacking the testimony of one of the prosecution’s primary witnesses, San Diego Police Det. Joe Lehr, who had to back-track in court last week after a new recording of Coronado’s speech surfaced that contradicted his testimony.
Lehr testified that Coronado was asked how to make a bomb, for an action. The recording showed the actual question was how Coronado had made the incendiary device he used in his previous arson.
While stopping just short of calling Lehr a bare-faced liar, Serra laid his sarcasm on thick. At one point his antics elicited a few titters from the jury and incurred the wrath of the prosecutors, who had two of their objections to Serra’s presentation sustained.
Then, back in sotto-voce mode, Serra made one final plea to the jury, this time a simple one: “Please say not guilty,” he said.
It was the prosecution’s turn again.
In rebutting Serra’s statement, Skerlos made up for the defense attorney’s panache with his own calm aplomb.
“How do we find the defendant’s intent? How do we get there?” Skerlos said. “Well, the defendant tells you his intent in the videos.”
Skerlos was referring to a video of a 60 Minutes broadcast featuring Coronado and another video of a previous Coronado speech given at a university. The videos were played as evidence in court and show an unapologetic Coronado talking openly about arson, and saying he hopes other people will follow in his shoes.
As Coronado’s supporters gasped and whispered venomously about Skerlos’ nerve, the prosecutor sprinkled scorn over Serra’s theatrics, stressing that Coronado’s case is a simple one.
Now that it is completely clear what Coronado said in his 2003 speech in Hillcrest, Skerlos said, all the prosecutors need to prove is that someone in the large crowd took his words seriously and planned to go out and commit arson.
Because the speech was made as the embers of a $40 million arson attributed to environmental activists still glowed in University City, Skerlos said, the chances were even greater that someone at the speech might be fuelled by Coronado’s words.
“All that was left was for one person to decide they wanted to be the hero,” Skerlos said.
With that, the jurors were given their orders, introduced to the bailiffs and filed into their chambers. When they emerge, one will hold a piece of paper that, in part, will reflect whether the 12 men and women were won over by the melodrama of the defense or the meditative calmness of the prosecution.
Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.