NEWARK – It’s a famous black and white image known as “Rubin’s Vase.”
A few simple lines produce an optical illusion. Do we see two faces peering at one another from close range, or view a white vase standing out from a black background?
The Menendez trial turned into one of those colorless drawings this week, with the defense and prosecution using the same witnesses, the same memos and often different sentences of the same emails to create the optical illusion they believe is the truth.
Look at the evidence one way, and the case is about a wrongfully accused, dedicated public servant concerned about broad policy issues. Look at it another way, and it’s a corrupt lackey doing the bidding of a rich friend in order to live the good life.
What you see depends on where you sit, but the only seats that will matter for Menendez and his friend Dr. Salomon Melgen are the 12 in the jury box. In the end, the very fact that there are multiple explanations for the actions Menendez took – let alone no smoking gun indication of a corrupt agreement – may be all it takes for reasonable doubt.
Throughout the day, a barrage of exhibits – mostly emails written five years ago or more – appeared on giant projection screens across from jurors and at the end of their jury box. The lawyers and their highlighters darted from one sentence to another, dissecting, redissecting, and reassembling the facts to present the picture they wanted the jury to see.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell was briefly flustered when the computer controlling the projection system finally rebelled, using its cursor to start scribbling uneven lines over the images and seemingly take on a mind of its own.
“The screen keeps going wacko, judge,” Lowell said.
The jurors could be forgiven for thinking the same thing of the day’s evidence.
As the first week of the defense’s case came to a close Thursday, the shifting context enveloped several of the official acts Menendez is accused of providing his friend and co-defendant Dr. Salomon Melgen. First, the meeting brokered by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for Menendez to speak with the person in charge at the Health Department. Then, the attempt by Menendez to stymie a State Department giveaway of free X-ray screeners to the Dominican Republic while Melgen was trying to get his port security contract enforced.
As if there wasn’t enough murkiness, the trial seems on track to revisit Florida’s bizarre 2010 Senate race. Just weeks before Election Day, it had then Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) chair Menendez snooping around Florida, trying to determine whether the Democratic candidate was on the verge of dropping out. Menendez got down there thanks to a private flight chartered by Melgen’s son-in-law.
“It’s certainly not irrelevant because it goes directly to the charges,” Melgen lawyer Kirk Ogrosky said.
The defense doesn’t dispute the flight happened, but it “should have been a flight that was reimbursed by the DSCC, and (the prosecution says) it was a bribe,” Ogrosky said.
“This is only meant to confuse a jury,” prosecutor J.P. Cooney said. “This is not a defense.”
“Oh my God,” Judge William Walls said dramatically, “it’s too bad CBS wasn’t there.”
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