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September 23, 2018

Reporter’s Notebook: Two Weeks At The Maxwell Trial


COMMENTARY: I’ve covered trials for more than 30 years now, and I’ve never seen anything like the Lynn and Lindsey Maxwell trial.

I’ve sat through high-profile trials — Delbert Ward, Laurie Kellogg and Shirley Kinge come to mind — and more routine court appearances, motions hearings and sentencings than I can count.

This trial beats them all.

I’ve got a notebook full of leftover scraps from this trial that I think might show why I think this was so unusual.

———-

First, it’s rare to have a trial — any trial — attract so many people.  Despite what you see on Law & Order, the galleries of nearly all court sessions are nearly empty, save for the lawyers, press, and affected family members.

This is particularly true of trials, which take a long time. It’s a lot of commitment to be there every day and unless you’re directly connected, you don’t tend to go.

There’ve been times when the gallery was full.  Delbert Ward’s murder trial in Wampsville was one time.  But the population of Palermo town is 3686, according to the 2000 US Census.  And every night, 60 to 75 folding chairs in the town courtroom were filled, with folks standing along the side and back walls.

About 1 in every 60 residents of Palermo were in that courtroom night after night for two weeks.  Apply that same ratio to a trial in the city of Oswego, and they’d have to hold court in a high school auditorium to accomodate the 300 people who would show up.

———

During the closing arguments, we suddenly heard the “boom, boom, boom” of what sounded like a car outside with the speakers turned up to 11.

But the “car” never passed by; the thumping stayed.

Turns out the bar next door was running an all-day party with live bands.

The music made closing statements a little tougher to focus on, but helped pass the time later when we spent 5 hours in the parking lot, waiting for the verdict.  Every now and then, a song would catch someone’s fancy and you’d see them do a couple of dance steps.

———

As I noted in one story, the Maxwells were open to talking to reporters during the trial.

On breaks, they came outside to smoke.  TV folk captured interviews with them to break up the humdrum of file tape and a talking-head standup.

I got into a conversation with Lynn Maxwell about her job.  She worked at Seneca Hill Manor nursing home until she was let go after her arrest.

My mother-in-law and aunt are there.  She seemed to remember them.

I asked whether, if she’s found not guilty, she’d like to go back to Seneca Hill. After all, she’d worked for many years for Oswego Health.  “Unlikely,” she said.

———-

Say what you will about defense lawyer Sal Lanza — and lots of folks there said quite a lot — the man puts on a show.

His side comments and colorful language drew rebukes time and again from perhaps the most patient judge in the history of trials, town justice Robert Wood, who was conducting his first trial.  “Mr. Lanza…”, he’d say, again and again as Lanza kept poking at him like a 10 year old who’s trying to find the outer edge of the limits of Dad’s patience.  It’s hard to believe that a judge like Walter Hafner, for example, would not have gone nuclear on Lanza.

Especially after insulting the judge on at least two occasions.  Once, he began an objection by noting, “I know it’s your first case and all, judge….”.  The other time, during a discussion where Lanza felt Wood was irritated about something, he said, “If it’s too hot for you, judge…”.

He not only tested the judge, he exasperated prosecutor Mark Moody time and again.  Moody couldn’t help but show his frustration.  His shoulders would sag, his head would hang and there’s be an audible sigh.  Many’s the time Moody rolled his eyes to the heavens over some interjection by Lanza, who interrupted Moody often as they spoke to the judge.

“I wish I could get more than 3 words out before you interrupt me,” Moody said.

“I’m making a record,” Lanza said, meaning a record for possible appeal.

“Yes, you are.  And you’re the only one,” Moody shot back.

—————

It took me a while to “get” what Sal was doing.  Finally, it hit me:  Standup lawyering.  Lanza kept trying to inject humor — at least, by his standards — into these long, tedious proceedings.  However, most of the audience was predisposed to laugh at, and not with, him.

“I’m not trying to be a jokester,” he said at one point. “Well, yes I am.”

Here’s some of what he said:

As Moody rose from his seat, time and again, to raise objections: “You know, Mr. Moody’s gonna have strong legs from jumping up and down.”

When a microphone fell over, making a loud pop! in the room, Lanza clutched his heart: “I thought it was my enemies.”  That one actually got a good laugh.

While watching the State Police video of troopers using fishing nets to try, with great difficulty, to capture some of the cats in the Maxwells’ master bedroom: “Apparently they didn’t teach cat catching at the (police) academy.”

When trying to show the State Police DVD on the Mac he brought from home, as Moody attempted to open the video: “Now you’re getting into my wife’s letters and she’ll be very upset.”

At one point, he was questioning a witness about what Erin ate for dinner.  Pasta, said the witness, like ramen noodles.  Lanza said, shaking his head, “Ramen noodles. This is what we’ve come to in the United States.” What about, he continued, a nice dish of pasta.  You know, you boil the water, put a little salt in it.  Put the pasta in, let it cook.  Get a nice sauce going…  Moody objected to the cooking lesson and Wood put a stop to it, adding, “as good as that sounds”.  The absurdity of the moment got me laughing so hard I was shaking.

Moody got off at least one great line of his own, in an exchange with Lanza:

Lanza:  “I’m not trying to rush this case.”

Moody:  “I’m not trying to rush it either.  I just want it over with before I’m dead.”

There were more such moments, which I hope the appeals court that gets this case can appreciate from reading the transcripts.

But the mood in the room shifted hard at least twice, when Lanza deliberately threw jabs at the community.  After a murmur in the crowd caused the judge to ask everyone to quiet down, Lanza said, for emphasis, “The disrespect in this town is unbelievable.”

During his closing statement, Lanza apologized and said he meant no disrespect.  He said he made those insults and others on purpose, to try to get the jury to challenge what they thought they knew.  “I want you to say, ‘who are you to tell us how to live?'”

Sal’s run for office a couple of times.  If he runs again, I’m guessing he can skip Palermo.

————

Mark Moody, it turns out, is a Red Sox fan.  He’s originally from Massachusetts and bleeds for all things Boston, including the Sox.

Justice Wood allowed laptops in the courtroom.  The Post-Standard used theirs to provide live coverage of the trial via Twitter.  I wrote my brief updates during the breaks and used my laptop primarily to keep an eye on the Red Sox/Yankees score.  I’m a Sox fanatic, too.

Once Moody learned I was tracking the game, he’d shoot me looks on occasion for a score update.  In the 10th inning of the game that was a shutout until Alex Rodriguez’s home run in the 15th inning, he scribbed a quick note during a dead period in the trial.  On his way back from a conference at the bench, he slipped me the note.  It said, “So I guess I’m missing the best game of the year?”

Yup.

————

If you watched TV live shots from the trial, chances are you caught a glimpse of Steve Burdick. The Palermo businessman has been one of the more visible faces in the community outrage over Erin’s death.

He prepared a couple of signs to show in the background of the live shots.  The first one, shown only on the first night of the trial, said “Hang ‘Em High”.  That night, there was a confrontation in the parking lot between a spectator and Lanza and Moody appealed to everyone to take the emotional temperature down.

The next night, Burdick returned with a new sign, touting “Sal’s Side Show Circus”, complete with a graphic of a red and white circus tent.

————-

The circus had, in some respects, come to Palermo.  But the folks at Palermo Town Hall could not have been nicer or more accomodating.

This was clearly the Trial Of The Century for Palermo.  No one could recall a bigger case being tried locally, and town clerk Jean Gulliver reminded me that until recent years, town justices often heard cases in their homes.

Can you imagine this trial, played out in Justice Wood’s living room?

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3 Responses “Reporter’s Notebook: Two Weeks At The Maxwell Trial”

  1. BJ Motyka
    August 10, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    What a great recap on this trial, and a real look at what went on beyond what made the tv news. Excellent coverage on an amazing-in more ways than one-trial. Thanks for your take on it, and sharing with the rest of us.

  2. Rob Weske
    August 11, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Great coverage and article, Dave.

    [Thanks, Rob! Good to hear from you! – Dave]

  3. Sal Lanza
    August 13, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    Outstanding coverage of the trial Dave. It was a pleasure speaking to you. Keep up the good work.

    Sal Lanza

    [Thanks, Sal. See you around the courthouse. -Dave]

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