Thursday, September 21, 2006

The trial in Courtroom 1

The federal courthouse in Raleigh on New Bern Avenue is a utilitarian pile of concrete and glass that has housed some high-profile trials over the years – including the tedious jury selection that marked the beginning of the U.S. Justice Department’s case against former N.C. Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings Wednesday.
Opened in 1970 and later named for former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford, the courthouse is every bit as attractive and inspiring a public building as, say, the average late-20th century industrial plant.
If you’re looking for an interesting federal courthouse in Raleigh, you’d have to go to the old Century Station on Fayetteville Street, which began life in 1874 as the U.S. Post Office and housed the federal courts beginning in 1879. When the new federal building opened its doors on New Bern Avenue three blocks east of the Capitol, the focus of the U.S. Eastern District of North Carolina shifted too.
There’s not much to admire about the structure itself, but up on the seventh floor in Courtrooms 1 and 2, a lot of important N.C. history has played out. Over the years I watched former Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald be convicted (1979) for murdering his family, the late N.C. AFL-CIO head Wilbur Hobby be convicted (1981) for mismanaging federal job training funds and Judge Terry Boyle staring down (2005) the U.S. Navy over its cockeyed plans for a practice jet landing field next to one of the East Coast’s most important winter feeding grounds for migratory waterfowl. Courtroom 1 is also the place where Judge Boyle has consistently ruled against the purported owners of North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights and ordered it given back to the state archives.
On the east wall of Courtroom 1 hang portraits of two legendary judges in the Eastern District – Algernon Butler of Clinton and Franklin Dupree of Raleigh. I never covered Butler’s courtroom but I sat in Dupree’s court several times, and was glad I didn’t have to face the stern-looking Dupree, who had a reputation for running a no-nonsense court.
How the trial of Kevin Geddings on charges of wire fraud and failing to provide honest service will go, no one knows – or what place it will take in N.C. history. But it may produce some interesting footnotes: The list of potential witnesses include Gov. Mike Easley as well as House Speaker Jim Black and Sen. Tony Rand, Democratic leader in the state Senate. It also includes former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges as well as a couple of state senators and some advisers to Easley. Before it’s over, a lot of otherwise powerful folks may find themselves parading in and out of the walnut-paneled courtroom, facing questions of what they knew and when they knew it.

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