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Personal Foul

On Tuesday, City Hall still bore the scars of Monday's Super Bowl rally. Outside, street sweepers blew away leftover parade litter; on the doors, notes from Mayor Wellington Webb promised a victory celebration for city workers; inside, miscreants wearing blue and orange swapped high fives as they waited to pay their debts to society.

Upstairs in courtroom 311, Broncos starter Tyrone Braxton was just beginning to pay his dues. For being famous, and maybe, just maybe, for harassing four women on the night of the Denver Broncos' previous Super Bowl parade.

Those women filed a civil lawsuit against Braxton on March 20, 1998, and as luck would have it--luck, coupled with amended complaints and heavily argued motions that fill inches of files in Denver District Judge Morris Hoffman's chambers--the trial was scheduled to begin February 1. Recognizing the realities of a potential Broncos win, last week Judge Hoffman postponed jury selection by a day. It would be too darn distracting for people about to sit in judgment of the Bronco to have to fight their way through hundreds of thousands of fans gathered around the courthouse. As it turns out, Hoffman made a wise decision. On Monday, at a hearing on the upcoming hate-crime trial of Nathan Thill, the thick courtroom walls couldn't keep out the sound of "Born to Be Wild" blaring outside for the crowd.

Racism permeates the Braxton case, too. The four plaintiffs are black, as is Braxton--but his wife is white. And the plaintiffs' attorney made sure to mention that fact to potential jurors, signaling a major play in the game to come.

According to the suit filed by plaintiffs Reyniko Abram, Shellyann Allen, Aretha Moore and Turkesha Tillis, what happened was this: On the night of January 27, 1998--the date that Broncos fans flooded downtown to welcome their heroes at a parade--the four young women, all fans of the Broncos, were at I-Beam, a now-defunct club on Larimer Square. While they were there, Braxton came in with a "very boisterous" group of fellow Broncos, talking to white women and bragging loudly about the Super Bowl.

And bragging about other things, according to witnesses for the plaintiffs. Abram claims Braxton took her by the neck and hair, told her, "If you all ain't fucking, I ain't talking to none of y'all," then made a vulgar comment about his penis--before he "swung it." Abram complained to the cops about this action three days later, on January 30.

According to Braxton's attorneys, that was the day after Abram was arrested for confronting Bronco Alfred Williams and his Hispanic wife at the club. Before that, Abram hadn't complained to the cops about Braxton's alleged behavior January 27, nor had she or anyone else told the club, says Edward Leger, an off-duty Denver cop working at I-Beam that night.

But the forty Denver residents called for jury duty didn't know any of this. Their only hint that the case would involve a famous figure--and a part he did or didn't "swing"--came when Braxton walked into the courtroom and sat beside his attorneys. There were whispers, a few nudges. And then Hoffman made it official, announcing he would "introduce the players." First up, plaintiff's attorney Anne Sulton. She introduced her co-counsels, both black men, as well as the four plaintiffs sitting behind them. Then defense attorney Jeff Springer introduced fellow white-guy attorney Harvey Steinberg and their client--yes, Tyrone Braxton.

The judge then offered a taste of what would follow: The plaintiffs were claiming Braxton had engaged in "assault and outrageous conduct," including exposing himself, and were asking for damages. Braxton, he continued, denied both the assault and the conduct, and had countersued.

Then came the tedious housekeeping. Hoffman asked the prospective jurors whether they knew the plaintiffs, the defendant or their lawyers--"and when I say 'know,' I mean know personally," he emphasized. And did they know any of the people who might be called to testify, such as Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and Assistant District Attorney Chuck Lepley? (The judge also listed Westword's T.R. Witcher, who'd mentioned the suit in his May 7, 1998, profile of Sulton, but that subpoena had been quashed the day before by Hoffman.)

Who knew jury selection would move slower than Neil Smith running for a touchdown? The real action started at three that afternoon, when Sulton got the toss and stood to address seventeen prospective jurors seated in the box. How many were Broncos season-ticket holders? One. How many had a copy of Tyrone Braxton's autograph? None. How many wanted Braxton's autograph? None admitted it. Does money make a difference in the justice system? Yes, responded a teacher. How many had seen a football game in the last year? Five. If a player was killed on the field, would you stay until the end of the game? Shrugs. Was there anyone who believed the Denver Broncos were on trial in this case? No. Noting that Braxton is married to a white woman, Sulton asked if anyone would feel uncomfortable about African-American women discussing his interest in white females. No. Had anyone been called "a bitch or a ho" in public? Did anyone think it was appropriate to expose private body parts in a nightclub?

The teacher said that depended.
"In an unlawful fashion, a man pulled out his penis and started shaking it at a woman--was that appropriate?"

"If a woman exposed her breast, I don't know that I'd sue," the teacher responded.

"Is the message the same when a woman pulls down her shirt and a man pulls out his penis?" asked Sulton. "Is anyone unwilling to award monetary damages if the evidence shows he took his penis out and shook it?" No one.

It's a true sign of our times that the word "penis" can fly through a courtroom more fluidly than an Elway pass. And that the mere sight of said penis might be construed to constitute an assault--or at least inspire a lawsuit alleging one.

"Does the fact that the DA declined to prosecute have any bearing on your willingness to evaluate evidence?" Sulton asked. (In his Westword piece, Witcher reported that ADA Lepley had taken two statements from each of the women before the DA's office declined to file criminal charges, citing insufficient evidence.)

And then Sulton, who a year ago was all over the newspapers and TV as the defender of Gil Webb II, the young man convicted of causing the crash that killed police officer Ron DeHerrera, asked this: "Is anyone familiar with my work?" One woman thought she'd seen her on TV.

That woman also happened to be one of the three who didn't recognize Tyrone Braxton. Of the seventeen prospective jurors, just three told Harvey Steinberg they hadn't watched the Super Bowl Sunday--and two of those had listened to it on the radio at work. "Do you think those who get recognized get sued more often?" asked Steinberg.

The teacher chimed in again. A former athlete, he'd been in bars with teammates when they'd get inundated with women. For doing nothing.

Not surprisingly, the teacher did not make the final cut. When the jury of seven was seated shortly before five o'clock Tuesday, it consisted of four men and three woman--some old, most youngish--and none black. The woman who did not watch the Super Bowl was still there.

If the Super Bowl is as American as apple pie, this trial promises to be a real slice of Americana. Only one person in forty thinks she might recognize Sulton, a lawyer who loves fights--and invites them frequently as the local NAACP counsel. Almost all recognize Braxton, who spent Saturday night locked up with the rest of the Broncos at a hotel, while Falcon leader Eugene Robinson was allegedly swinging his thing for an undercover cop. On Sunday, Braxton not only won a Super Bowl, but he celebrated his seventh anniversary with wife Elizabeth--whose race apparently constitutes a personal foul.

Let the games begin.


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