Longform

Blackburned

Page 7 of 10

His reluctance to back down produced other flare-ups with the judge as the day wore on. When Brennan referred to Safeway as "an incredibly wealthy company" and asked one witness why fire officials were giving the grocery chain's employees a ride from a court hearing, Blackburn called a bench conference to tell him to knock off the inflammatory rhetoric. When Brennan complimented Joe Hart, the assistant chief who'd investigated the cookbook affair, for his "impressive uniform" and described him as a "very handsome fellow," Blackburn called a recess — and again lashed into the attorney once the jury was removed.

"Mr. Brennan, enough is enough," he said. "You are going to have to find it within your power to resist what apparently is the almost irresistible — to comment editorially as you conduct examination."

In court filings Brennan has made since the order for a new trial, he explains at length that he wasn't trying to mock Hart — or the judge. Bringing up the uniform was a way of making a crucial point to the jury. One of the accusations against Cadorna was that he'd used his uniform to obtain the favor of a cookbook from Safeway employees. But Hart had come to the same folks the next day, in an even more impressive uniform, seeking to enlist them in Cadorna's prosecution. He'd even taken a copy of Colorado Colore from the store for investigative purposes — without paying for it.

The jury picked up on what Brennan was doing, even if the judge found it verging on contempt. They also learned that several statements Hart had made in the course of his investigation now turned out to be untrue — that he had witnesses to the shoplifting, for example, or that a search of Safeway records had failed to turn up Cadorna's prior purchase of the cookbook. (No such search was ever performed.) Hart was also obliged to admit that he was good friends with Cadorna's nemesis Hoffman, who'd arranged for an excavation company that Hart operated as a sideline to get some trenching work.

It appeared that Cadorna's goose had been cooked, so to speak, from the outset — and that counted more with the jury than Brennan's frequent trips to the woodshed.


Getting Hart to admit that his investigation was badly flawed was supposed to be the prelude to the grand event of Cadorna's testimony. But the examination of his own client was rockier than Brennan had anticipated. Cadorna seemed distracted, and Brennan's questions became increasingly leading or speechified, prompting frequent objections.

At one point, Judge Blackburn called a recess to instruct the plaintiff's attorney not to make faces "when this court makes a ruling that is adverse to you." Although he quickly apologized, Brennan now says he has no idea what the judge was talking about.

"I do wear my heart on my sleeve," he says. "I might have unconsciously registered some disgust with his ruling, but there was nothing histrionic about my conduct."

The real histrionics came later, as a frustrated Brennan followed Cadorna to the bathroom and urged him to get his head together. Assistant City Attorney Wesoky confronted Brennan and told him it was improper to coach a witness. Brennan blew up. "I am not coaching the witness," he said. "Get the fuck out of my face." He went on to call Wesoky a "fucking weasel."

When the jury was dismissed for the day, Wesoky brought the exchange to the attention of Judge Blackburn. The judge listened impassively as Brennan described himself as "temperamentally challenged" and blasted the city's attorneys as "masters" of witness-coaching.

"There are various ways in which lawyers can offend the propriety and decency of a court," Brennan said. "Being impolite or temperamental is the least of these.... They come here and insult your integrity, insult your office and insult this entire courthouse by their conduct in presenting every manner of lie they possibly can."

To his credit, Blackburn declined to get involved in the scrum. "I am not going to change hats at this point and sit as some kind of referee of unprofessional conduct that occurs outside my presence," he said, sending the combatants home for the day.

According to jurors, the turning point in the trial was not Cadorna's testimony, but the self-destructing case the defense mounted in the last two days. The city officials who took the stand to defend Cadorna's dismissal came across as well-rehearsed, robotic and stonewalling. None of them seemed even remotely concerned about the public resources that had been devoted to ruining a lowly mucker's career over a false charge. Some of them couldn't even get his name right, calling him "Cardona."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast