The Trial (Part I)


When I walked into the courtroom, Special Assistant Prosecutors John Lang and William Day respectfully rose to their feet.  Lead defense attorney Edward Gerber and his co-counsel did not.  This had been the way throughout the trial:  the prosecution treated their witnesses with respect; the defense did not.

After I was sworn in before State Supreme Court Justice Lyman Smith, the jury of Onondaga County citizens, defendant Richard Sheeran, The Syracuse Newspapers reporters and a packed courtroom, John stepped to the podium and said, “Good morning, Miss Woodlen.”  I almost giggled.  John?  Calling me “Miss Woodlen?”  After all we’ve been through together in the past year, I no longer am Anne?  Now I am Miss Woodlen?  Good grief.

Then John takes me through the story of what happened in Dick Sheeran’s office that day.  He asks small, precise questions.  He has told me—repeatedly, that this will not be like it is on television.  There will be no great “Ah-ha!” moments.  There will just be one small, precise question after another, building the case.  This is not Perry Mason.

And so John asks his questions and I answer them with small, precise answers.  I tell the story I have told so many times about being told to buy tickets and then being threatened with losing my job if I didn’t.  Then John goes off half-cocked and starts asking me about something we’ve never talked about.  I have no idea where he is going or why, but I dutifully and trustingly follow him, stumbling and stuttering as I go. 

Then, back on track, we come to the point in the story where John asks me if Mr. Sheeran said anything else.  I turn and look at Dick and answer:  “Yes, he said, ‘Now you can say you’ve had your first shakedown,’ and that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

John thanks me and sits down.  Ed Gerber rises to the podium.  I hate Ed Gerber; I think he is a slimy, malicious, son of a bitch, even though I’ve never met him.  He’s the guy who leaked my psychiatric history to the press.  He’s the guy behind the testimony of Sidney Orgel, the perverted psychiatric interview, and me not sleeping for the past year.  A colleague would later say of Ed Gerber, “He was able to take the littlest thing and make a big thing out of it for a client.”  The fact that I had been treated for depression years earlier had nothing whatsoever to do with Dick Sheeran shaking me down for a political contribution, but Gerber had been working hard to make a big thing out of it.  Fact was, he didn’t have anything else to use against me.  Dick Sheeran did the crime and Gerber couldn’t change that.

I had had months to reflect on my history of depression.  It was the 1970’s and I was mentally ill.  That’s the way it was being presented.  I was a sick person.  It was something shameful, something to hide.  On inpatient psychiatry, there are no phones in patient’s rooms.  There are pay phones in the hallway for the patients to use, and staff members direct patients, when answering the phone, not to say anything that will reveal it is inpatient psychiatry.  Many patients are hiding from their family, friends and employers that they are receiving psychiatric treatment.  And this is the hook Ed Gerber has got in me.  He is counting on me to be ashamed of my psychiatric treatment and to want to keep it a secret.  I mean, he would, wouldn’t he?  He surely believed I should be ashamed, now didn’t he?

Screw that.  After long thought, I had concluded that I had nothing of which to be ashamed.  I had been depressed.  I was diagnosed with an identifiable illness for which I sought appropriate treatment.  Where’s the shame in that?  I was a responsible adult who got sick, went to the hospital and got treated.  I had no shame.

So Gerber starts in on me in the cross examination.  He begins quietly, gently, suggesting that perhaps I misunderstood or misremembered what happened.  He gives me an easy out.  I don’t take it.  He questions every detail of my testimony, looking for minor inconsistencies that he can use to shake my confidence.  Gerber focuses on what happened after Mr. Sheeran asked me to buy a ticket.

You didn’t buy a ticket, did you?

No.

Did you get fired?

No.

In fact, you got promoted, didn’t you?

Yes.  (Because I took the Typist II test, and if you don’t mess with it then the Civil Service system works, you jerk!)

At some point he approaches me to show me some meaningless card from Personnel, which shows my employment history, but John has prepared me for this.  He has explained that a standard attorney’s trick is to find some excuse to invade the witness’ private space to upset the witness.  It doesn’t upset me; I am prepared.

Gerber goes back to the idea that I am confused and don’t really remember what happened.  Again, I refuse to take that escape route.

Gerber is trying to force me onto the defensive and make it look like I wanted to be the “star” witness.  If Mr. Sheeran inviting me to buy a ticket had really upset me so badly (and why would an invitation to buy a ticket upset you—is there something wrong with you?) then why didn’t I report it to the District Attorney?

(Are you kidding me?  All those daily coffee breaks that were attended by all the department heads—do you really think one of the bosses was going to protect me from another one of the bosses?  District Attorney Jon Holcombe raped one of the other secretaries, for Pete’s sake!  Yeah, right, I should have gone to him and filed a complaint.)

Gerber goes on to fire more questions at me:  why didn’t I go to the State Troopers; why didn’t I go here or there, if this ticket business was so troubling to me?

I didn’t go to the State Police or any of the other resources because I had no idea that they had jurisdiction.

Finally, Gerber comes to it:  why did I go to the Special Prosecutor’s Office?

All people share the right and the responsibility to make the decisions that affect their lives together.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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