|So began special prosecutor Stanley Levco on Tuesday, day two of the forgery trial involving Morgan, the former longtime head of the county Democratic Party, and party member Dustin Blythe.
Following a tedious day of jury selection Monday, day two began with opening statements by Levco and defense attorneys Jeffrey Kimmell and Mike Jasinski and progressed into witness testimony, including that of a forensic document examiner and former Voter Registration worker Lucas Burkett.
Morgan and Blythe are charged with conspiring to forge signatures on petitions to place then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the state Democratic primary ballot in 2008.
Morgan faces two counts of conspiracy to commit petition fraud, a Class C felony, and two counts of conspiracy to commit forgery, a Class D felony; Blythe faces nine counts of forgery, a Class C felony, and one count of falsifying a petition, a Class D felony.
Speaking to members of the jury, Levco said they would hear about how Morgan instructed Burkett and others to forge names on the Obama and Clinton petitions “in a creative way, so people won’t know what we’re doing.”
Also, he said, the jury would hear how, after being charged, Morgan conducted “strategy sessions” with his three co-defendants — Blythe, Pam Brunette and
Bev Shelton – concerning “how to beat the charges.”
In closing, “I promise you this,” he said, “after you’ve heard all the evidence in this case … you will be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that both of the defendants are guilty of all the charges.”
Blythe’s attorney, by contrast, described the prosecution’s case as reliant on the testimony of a disgruntled former party worker and admitted forger, Burkett, and two admitted criminals – Shelton and Brunette, who pleaded guilty to multiple charges in the case prior to the start of the trial.
“You’ll hear evidence pointing to the motivation of these witnesses to testify against the defendants,” Kimmell said.
He added that the jury would hear about how no one ever witnessed Blythe forge any petitions, and about how the state’s forensic document examiner could not match him to any of the allegedly forged signatures on the Obama and Clinton petitions.
“At the end of this case, contrary to what Mr. Levco said, you will have a lot of doubt,” he told the jury.
As for Morgan’s attorney, he described the alleged conspiracy as something that was carried out behind his client’s back.
“Butch Morgan had little if any input into the day-to-day operations of the Voter Registration office,” Jasin-ski said, adding, “The evidence will fail to show beyond any reasonable doubt that (he) is guilty of the crimes for which he is accused.”
Following opening statements, Burkett, who worked as one of three Democratic appointees to the office of Voter Registration between January and August 2008 (he was appointed by Morgan, with whom he said he had a “cordial” relationship at the time) took the stand.
The investigation by The Tribune and Howey Politics Indiana that led to the charges in the case began when Burkett, through his friend and attorney Andrew Jones, with whom he helps coach the John Adams High School Mock Trial Team, approached the two publications with information about the alleged conspiracy.
Burkett testified that on Jan 21, 2008, a Monday, Morgan instructed him and others, including Brunette and Shelton, to copy signatures from a petition to place Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Schellinger on the ballot onto petitions to place Clinton and Obama on the ballot.
He said Blythe was charged with copying the same signatures onto a petition to place John Edwards on the ballot, but that Blythe switched and started copying onto the Obama petition after Edwards dropped out.
He said he never personally witnessed Blythe copying any signatures.
This went on for about five days, Burkett said, at which point he decided to stop. “I was new to the job, and very naive to the process,” he told the jury. “But later in that week, I realized what I was doing was illegal.”
He said he tried to convince Morgan that the signatures could be collected legitimately, but that Morgan insisted there wasn’t enough time. The deadline to submit petitions for nomination to the state Election Division in 2008 was Feb. 18.
Burkett testified that he continued to work in Voter Registration for another seven months before being asked to leave in August for what he considered to be legitimate reasons. It was not clear from his testimony Monday whether he was fired or resigned.
“I was a bad employee,” he said. “I was nervous, I was afraid. I also had health problems like hyper-thyroidism. I was a bad employee.” He also admitted to spending time on the computer listening to music and, later, to conducting opposition research for the Stephen Luecke campaign when he should have been working.
Burkett testified that he decided to come forward with the story after being threatened by Morgan at a Mardi Gras event at Democratic Headquarters in 2010. He said Morgan became upset when he started to leave before the end of the event and shouted, “Well, I kept you out of jail!”
During cross-examination, first Kimmell and then William Stanley, Morgan’s other attorney, attempted to discredit Burkett by portraying him as a disgruntled former party worker out to get Morgan and further motivated by a desire to escape prosecution.
Kimmel, for his part, repeatedly asked Burkett whether he had ever been promised immunity in exchange for his cooperation in the case, to which Burkett responded that he had not.
Kimmell also pointed out that, as a student at Adams, Burkett was a member of the mock trial team, where he acted as a witness. “So you have some experience with this,” he said, to which Burkett responded, “There’s a big difference between a real trial and a fake trial, I can tell you that.”
Stanley, meanwhile, noted that, in addition to forcing Burkett out at Voter Registration, Morgan also backed Democrat Tim Scott and not Burkett’s friend, fellow Democrat Jones, when the two ran for South Bend Common Council in 2008.
“That upset you, didn’t it,” he said.
Stanley also touched on the period surrounding Burkett’s departure from Voter Registration.
Allegedly, Morgan approached Burkett at the time and said he had spoken to county Prosecutor Mike Dvorak and then-county Commissioner Steve Ross, both Democrats, and that the two had agreed not to charge Burkett with ghost employment so long as he resigned.
As Stanley saw it, Morgan was trying to help Burkett by keeping him out of jail.
Burkett, however, didn’t see it that way.
“Accusing someone of ghost employment, I would not consider that helping someone,” Burkett said.
Dvorak, whose forged name appears on one of the Obama petition pages, would later testify that he never discussed such a deal with Morgan, nor was he aware of any such discussions having taken place.
Stanley also questioned Burkett’s decision to give the story to the press and not the police.
Later, in re-cross, Levco asked about that. “Is it fair to say you had more trust in the press than the prosecutor’s office?”
“Absolutely,” Burkett responded, noting that, at the time, he believed Dvorak had been involved in conversations with Morgan regarding what he now, with the benefit of hindsight, assumes was a made-up ghost employment investigation.
Courtney King, the state’s other key witness Tuesday, took the stand later in the afternoon, following a break for lunch.
A forensic document examiner with the state police, King testified to comparing the handwriting on a number of the questioned petition pages to the known handwriting of Blythe, Morgan, Brunette and Shelton at the request of the state.
She said she identified Blythe as having filled out the majority of the hand-printed portions of eight pages of the Obama petition, including printed names, dates of birth, addresses and city and town or zip code information.
She said she could not say for sure whether Blythe wrote the signatures on those pages, partly because the known samples he provided lacked enough lower-case letters. But she also could not rule him out as the author, either, she said.
In scientific terms, she said, there were either “indications” Blythe wrote the signatures or it was “probable” he wrote the signatures. As a rule, forensic document examiners do not deal with percentages. However, “probable” indicates “strong evidence,” she said.
Erich Speckin, a forensic document examiner hired by The Tribune to examine some of the same documents back in 2011 came to more or less the same conclusion.
King also found evidence of Morgan’s handwriting on some of the questioned petition pages. Among other things, she concluded he was the “probable” writer of one entire entry, signature included, on page 49 of the Obama petition.
Asked by deputy prosecutor Christopher Fronk if forensic document examination is a scientific field, King said, “Yes, it is.”
The trial resumes today with the cross-examination of King by the defense. Kimmell provided a hint as to how that might go in his opening Monday, when he said of forensic document examination, “It’s not a science.”