Report from the field: day one.
"Ms. Solomon, is your client here?"
Judge Reagan's inquiry to defense counsel wasn't really an auspicious start, as you would expect. Ms. Cherron Phillips, a.k.a. River Tali-El Bey and many other names, had been ordered to appear in court, personally, at nine o'clock on Monday morning. It was now twelve minutes past that point, and Ms. Solomon wasn't sure of the answer to Judge Reagan's question, having not spoken to her client.
By twenty-two past, counsel for both sides were getting worried. Neither were sure if Ms. Phillips was even in the building, and though the US Attorney's office said that they'd secured her passport, it was also true that her last attempt to delay trial had failed decisively. Judge Reagan had made it abundantly clear that trial was going to start today, barring a major disaster. If ever there was reason for her to abscond, she certainly had it now.
Nevertheless, ten minutes later, the door to courtroom 2125 opened, and in walked the defendant, clad in a blue blouse and shawl, walking slowly, tentatively, into the well of the court. She took a seat at the defense table, not greeting the defense counsel, not even looking at her. The judge finally donned his robes. It was time to bring eighteen months of prep work to a close, and get this trial under way.
The first task was to address a pro se filing that Ms. Phillips had made, immediately prior to trial. This was announced to be a notice of appeal, one awfully similar to the one that had been rejected (with the concurrence of the Court of Appeals) just last week. (There was some mention of a Writ of Mandamus, but only briefly.) The prosecution repeated its objection to this, and asked for the stay of trial to be denied, again, as frivolous. Ms. Phillips asked to plead her case directly; the judge refused this as well, directing her to speak through her counsel, who had not seen this filing at all. In fact, Ms. Solomon pointed out, for the record, that she had not been in contact with her client at all since the pretrial proceedings, despite multiple attempts.
For her part, Ms. Phillips refused to consent to the proceedings. This had no effect, but it was followed by the judge repeating his warning to Ms. Phillips that she had better behave. Ms. Phillips asked if the judge would accept liability for something (I couldn't hear what), and the judge repeated his order that she speak only through her counsel. She quieted down after that, and sat sullenly at one corner of the defense table, while her purported counsel sat on the opposite corner, as far apart as they could get. The microphones, for what it is worth, were both at counsel's end of the table.
Courtroom security went down to fetch the panel, which took a while. By and by, Ms. Phillips passed a paper to her attorney, who looked it over, and announced that it had been rejected that morning. Still, she took it and dropped it into her file, unceremoniously. Not long after, Ms. Solomon passed a paper back to Ms. Phillips. "Is this for me?" she asked. Ms. Solomon replied that it wasn't, but she could look at it. (Presumably this was the jury list: counsel had been instructed not to let her take a copy or any notes from that.) Ms. Phillips shook her head and turned away.
I should mention at this juncture that Judge Reagan is on assignment from the Southern District of Illinois, and while that helps to reduce any concerns about conflicts of interest or ex parte communications, it also means that he is not familiar with the mechanics of jury selection in the Northern District, and in particular with how to seat the venire. This had two results: the first was a certain amount of confusion during voir dire, when the Judge had to address the jurors by number, and they were not seated in the order to which he was accustomed and not seated closely enough for him to read their numbers directly. The other is that I was asked to move, twice, as they worked out where everyone would sit.
The questioning of the panel was probably fairly typical. The judge did define the term, "sovereign citizen," and asked if anyone was one. Juror #16, a TSA worker, had heard of them, but the matter wasn't explored further. The prosecution's questioning was also fairly routine, mostly just an inquiry into whether anyone had heard of anyone on the witness list. The defense, on the other hand, was quite wide-ranging: any bad experiences with government? Sympathetic to the Tea Party, or the Occupy movement? how do you feel about cheating? do you feel like you should be more patient? Where did you spend your last vacation? In the end, the result was a jury of six men and eight women.
Meanwhile, during the lunch break, the witnesses began arriving. One greeted a court staffer warmly, and they began chatting in the hallway about what brings him back, and how is he doing, and, geez, can you believe this sort of thing can happen? It took a moment or two for them to realize that the jury panel (which is also filtering back from lunch) is hanging around in the hallway too, and that they probably shouldn't be chatting within earshot. They retired into an empty office nearby, and soon after, the panel was called back in to be sworn.
The prosecution opened by telling the story of Michael Dobbins (whose story is told below). It was mentioned that the defendant had been disruptive of his brother's case, to the point that the courts had to restrict Ms. Phillips's access to them. The defense statement, on the other hand, was much broader: that, though the defendant might have acted out in a misguided way, the jury should keep an open mind and hear all the evidence before coming to judgment.
Mr. Dobbins was the first witness to the stand. He was the clerk of the US District Court of the Northern District of Illinois from 1997 to 2011, and described the duties of the clerk briefly. He found out his lien while attempting to sell the parking space to his condominium unit: it was a maritime lien for $100 billion, which obviously presented a hiccup to selling the parking space. On cross-examination, it was pointed out that the court clerk doesn't handle every document personally, and that (with the advent of electronic filing) there is now little paper filing, anyway. So, he couldn't say that Ms. Phillips had actually filed anything. He also was not sure of how long the lien was on file, or whether it had been revoked. He did say, however, that the title company determined the lien was bogus, and it didn't actually stop the sale from going through.
Next up was Wendy Holderman (no relation to Judge Holderman), staff attorney and document examiner for the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. She testified, animatedly, about the process of recording documents in Cook County, and authenticated copies of the maritime liens in issue, as taken from the Recorder's files. She would have no idea what to do with a maritime lien, but it wouldn't be rejected: people record all kinds of things, such as poetry or artwork, and, not being a conventional real estate document, this would be handled like that and not reviewed. She also identified the cashier's receipts that corresponded to these twelve liens. Cross examination brought out that the records are permanent, but though the files are permanent, the effects might not be, and the Recorder's office can't speak to those. The Recorder's office probably has a few hundred maritime liens, out of tens of millions of documents in total. On redirect, the prosecution pointed out that one receipt showed it was issued to "River," at a PO box in Chicago. Recross brought out one of the first laugh lines (the laughter coming mainly from the students in the back row) with a minor slip-up by defense counsel:
Counsel: She identified herself as River?
Witness: How do you know it was a she? It could be River, it could be Mountain, it could be Stream...
The point is finally made that the identifier on the receipt is volunteered by the customer and is not verified.
By now, the courtroom artists have shown up and are hard at work. Ms. Phillips's bright blue scarf is perfect in this regard, standing out sharply against the dark gray suits of the attorneys and court staff and the dark wood paneling of the courtroom. The reporters are there, too, more or less. The mechanics of deed recording aren't compelling news, and as Ms. Phillips seems to be behaving herself, many of the reporters are stuck browsing their phones, stopping now and then to scribble a note or two when things get interesting.
We go to a break, and the law students gather around outside. "The prosecutor," says one, "says this is the stupidest case he's ever done." The others nod agreement: two hours into the evidence against Ms. Phillips, and they already can see the basis for that assessment.
Witness #3 was Tom Bruton, the current clerk of the court. He identified the docket for case 06-cr-778, USA v. Devon Phillips (Devon being Cherron Phillips's brother). He also identified the "Administrative Note and Demand" signed by Cherron Phillips that had been filed (at #136) in her brother's case. There was a little back-and-forth between direct and cross examination regarding filing policies in the district: the net seems to be that, though unaffiliated parties aren't supposed to file in the docket, it does happen sometimes, and those filings stay unless stricken by a judge.
Witness #4 was Thomas Shakeshaft, Assistant US Attorney for the district. He was the prosecutor on Devon Phillips's drug case. A maritime lien against him for $100B was brought to him by a colleague, which is how he learned it had been filed. He explained briefly how criminal discovery works, and how this could result in his name and address becoming known to the defendant in this case. He also testified, over objection, to Ms. Phillips's behavior in court during her brother's case: she would bring a crowd with her, instruct him on what to say in response to questioning, and would prepare and file papers saying he is not subject to US laws.
Cross-examination focused on whether it would be appropriate for a pro se defendant to file his own papers (yes), whether a defendant could file under a different name (yes, generally), and whether it would be OK to file even if advised by someone who was not an attorney (yes, as long as it wasn't frivolous). It was also pointed out that Mr. Shakeshaft didn't find out about his lien on his own, and that it didn't have any practical effect on his life or his affairs beyond the nuisance value. It also came out that Ms. Phillips's Mercedes had been forfeited to the government in her brother's drug case: this because Devon Phillips had been driving it during one of the drug deals for which he was charged. This last point drove a couple of cycles of re-direct and re-cross examination, which mainly concluded that the forfeiture was not done in retaliation for the lien, though it was done after the lien had been recorded.
Witness number 5 was our first real star: Judge James Holderman, former chief judge of the Northern District. Judge Holderman had received a letter that he eventually put into Devon Phillips's case file, since it seemed to relate to his case. Judge Holderman also described his involvement with the Executive Committee of the District, including its decision to restrict Ms. Phillips from filing documents in her brother's case, and eventually to bar her from the courthouse. Judge Holderman also identified a "Summons to Appear" before the Common Law Sovereign Consulate that he had received. (Side note: the return location for the Summons, if it can be called that, was at a branch of the Chicago Public Library. Evidently, Moors don't do Denny's for this sort of thing.) He referred this to the US Marshals, along with the "Common Law Bill of Indictment" which followed soon after. He also commented on the "Forgive Me" letter (mentioned in prior posts), which was admitted without objection.
Cross examination focused on damage control around the "Forgive Me" letter. It disclosed that Judge Holderman had no personal relation to either Devon or Cherron Phillips. Judge Holderman said that some of the language in the two "Common Law" documents makes sense, but only in other contexts. He was asked about the targets of the liens against him, of which there were five. Apparently, they all missed: one was against 204 S. Clark St. (which is an office building a little more than a block from the Dirksen courthouse); one was against the Metropolitan Correctional Center, two were against properties which Judge Holderman had once owned, but had sold prior to the liens being filed; and one was a property in which Judge Holderman had no personal interest, but had entered a judgment on at some point. On redirect, it was clarified that the liens caused him concern, even though they didn't affect his finances immediately.
With that, the first day of trial ended. (And I went home and had a headache just as I was starting to write all of this out. Sorry for the delay.) Day two had the big star of the show, and Patrick Fitzgerald, too; details to follow.