Stanford trial: Experts say case not won with just Davis testimony

By JUAN A. L.OZANO/Associated Press

HOUSTON, Texas — From testimony about bribes, blood oaths, faked profits and secret Swiss bank accounts, the ongoing fraud trial of jailed and former jet setting Texas tycoon R. Allen Stanford has had its share of drama.

And many of the details about the alleged fraud that prosecutors say bilked investors out of more than $7 billion in one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history were provided by Stanford’s former top money man and the prosecution’s star witness, James M. Davis, over more than four days of testimony.

But Stanford’s attorneys did their best to tear down Davis and portray him to jurors as a liar, adulterer, tax cheat and the true mastermind of the scheme who has pleaded guilty to three fraud and conspiracy charges as part of a plea deal with prosecutors and will say anything to avoid a lengthy prison term.

While legal experts say Davis’ credibility will be important with jurors during their deliberations, a fraud case as complex as this one isn’t won or lost with one witness and Stanford’s fate remains unclear.

“A trial is very much like a mosaic and the pieces in their entirety show the picture,” said Philip Hilder, a Houston criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who’s followed the trial. “Mr. Davis’ testimony, while key, is not the whole case.”

For the past three weeks, federal prosecutors have methodically presented evidence, including testimony from Davis and other ex-workers of Stanford’s companies as well as emails, financial statements and other documents, in support of their claims the flamboyant businessman orchestrated a 20-year scheme that took billions from investors through the sale of certificates of deposit, or CDs, from his bank on the Caribbean island nation of Antigua.

Davis, the former chief financial officer of Stanford’s companies, portrayed his ex-boss as the leader of the fraud who burned through billions of CD deposits to pay for failing businesses and fund his lavish lifestyle, including a fleet of private jets and yachts.

“The approach prosecutors (are taking) is the standard strategy in building a (fraud) case through documents and bank records and then corroborating that with the testimony of a well-placed insider,” said Robert Mintz, a New Jersey-based defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.

Stanford is on trial for 14 counts, including mail and wire fraud, and could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison if convicted. Stanford was once considered one of the U.S.’s wealthiest people, with an estimated net worth of more than $2 billion. He’s been jailed without bond since being indicted in 2009. Prosecutors could wrap up their case by early next week.

Defense attorneys have tried to show the financier was a savvy businessman whose financial empire, headquartered in Houston, was legitimate. They said he was trying to reorganize his businesses to pay back investors when authorities seized his companies.

Stanford’s lawyers accused Davis of leading the fraud and stealing millions of depositors’ funds. They also questioned his character by highlighting extra marital affairs he’s had and income taxes he’s failed to pay.

Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York City, said the defense strategy with Davis is “classic, right out of the playbook.”

“The theory is to say to the jury, ‘If he lied on his taxes, he’s lying you … if he lied to his wife, he’s going to lie to 12 strangers,’” he said.

Testimony from a witness like Davis will be viewed “with a healthy degree of skepticism” by the jury, Mintz said.

Sabino said it’s hard to know what weight the jury will give Davis’ testimony.

“The prosecution knew it was taking a risk by saying Mr. Davis will be the ultimate insider (to the alleged fraud). If they delivered, it will weigh heavily in their favor,” he said.

Hilder said it appears prosecutors have done a good job of keeping their theory simple and not overwhelming jurors with documents and records. Defense attorneys will have to continue doing the opposite because “the more complicated (the trial) is, the easier it is to argue reasonable doubt,” he said.

Once the defense begins its case, the question will be whether Stanford will testify, as his attorneys promised during their opening statements.

Sabino and Mintz don’t think that’s a good idea.

“More often than not, a defendant hurts rather than helps their own case,” Mintz said.