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Judge Edmunds the real guilty party in Webber trial

Sunday, July 13, 2003

By David Mayo
Grand Rapids Press Columnist


Congratulations, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds.

Through kow-towing to the rich and famous, through nuzzling up to Chris Webber for the sake of preserving professional basketball integrity over that of our legal system, Judge Edmunds assumed the risk of scuttling millions of taxpayer dollars spent in legitimate legal pursuit of truth.

And, by God, she just about did scuttle the pursuit of truth. Except for one thing.

Webber got lucky, insofar as Ed Martin died before trial.

And the Honorable Judge Edmunds got lucky, insofar as when Ed Martin died, because now she can't be held solely accountable for perverting justice, even though lawyers for both sides argued that Martin's failing health required a speedier resolution than the judge allowed.

Webber's perjury trial begins this week in Edmunds' federal courtroom in Detroit, without the deceased star witness, and without much of the key evidence which Edmunds threw out last week.

Last December, Edmunds granted the request of Webber's attorneys to push back the perjury trial from May to July in the final chapter of the Martin-to-Webber payola scandal. Martin claimed to have paid $280,000 in cash and gifts to Webber and his family during and before Webber's playing days at the University of Michigan. Webber denied it before a grand jury three years ago, claiming he never took more than pocket cash from Martin, and subsequently was charged with perjury.

Edmunds' ruling came for the express reason of pushing Webber's trial beyond the limits of the National Basketball Association playoffs, which the Sacramento Kings appeared well-positioned to win, until Webber's postseason knee injury doomed his team.

Attorneys squawked in open court about Edmunds' decision -- and not just on the prosecution side, which verbally lambasted it as favoritism for a famous athlete. Charlene Johnson, Webber's aunt, also faced criminal charges, which have been dropped since Martin's death. But last December, on the same day as Edmunds' ruling, Johnson's lawyer also cited concerns about Martin's failing health, and requested that Martin be deposed immediately.

Edmunds -- no doctor she, this appointee of the original one-term President Bush -- said she saw no reason for Martin to be deposed, but would order it if his health worsened.

It's safe to say that happened, though the deposition never occurred.

On Feb. 14, Martin died.

Chris Webber, you're off the hook. Judge Edmunds, Happy Valentine's Day.

Proving that Webber lied to a grand jury would have been difficult to prove under the best circumstances. Without the star prosecution witness -- and with the $280,000 figure ruled unverifiable and inadmissable by Judge Edmunds last week, and understandably so, since the only accounting we have now is the handwriting of a dead man -- there is next to zero chance of a successful prosecution.

Webber will get on the witness stand, smile, be glib, be polite, and be utterly and completely vague, because the worst thing a person can do when accused of accepting illicit cash is be specific about dollar amounts under oath. He'll toss out "I don't recall" responses like they're fast-break outlets, and the 2003-2004 NBA season will go on uninterrupted, with one of its biggest stars arriving in training camp right on time.

But what if Ed Martin, whose health was known to be an issue even as Judge Edmunds was granting a preferential trial delay, hadn't died in February? What if he died in May, or June, or the first two weeks of July?

What if he died after the original May trial date, but before the advantageously granted July date?

If Martin had lived three months longer, then keeled over dead, Judge Edmunds would have this entire judicial mess tossed directly in her lap.

As it is, Martin died before the original May trial date. So Judge Edmunds gets a bit of a break.

Damned if she deserves one. A regular citizen -- which is what Webber appeared to be until a federal judge demonstrated otherwise -- never would have gotten such a delay. Attorneys from both sides stood in Judge Edmunds' courtroom, protested that Martin was in poor health, protested that any further delay could negatively affect jurisprudence, then watched a federal judge rule that basketball games were important enough to schedule around.

Meantime, the 10th anniversary of Webber's final game at U-M passed this spring.

Maybe when all this ends, Chris Webber and Nancy Edmunds can take a few snapshots together. Maybe the basketball player can give the judge an autograph or two for her kids. Goodness knows, she has done plenty to deserve a little preferential treatment from the basketball star in return.

Because the only party likely to be adjudged guilty in this federal courtroom is the one wearing the black robe.

Contact David Mayo via e-mail at: dmayo@gr-press.com



2003 Grand Rapids Press. Used with permission

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2007 Ann Arbor News. Used with permission.
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