Longform

Blackburned

Page 8 of 10

The city called Frank Hoffman, who would have had the jury believe that Cadorna was making $56 an hour moonlighting at Home Depot — an assertion easily rebutted by Cadorna himself. Brennan wrapped up a bruising cross-examination of Hoffman, a tall and imposing figure, with a weird non sequitur: "Now, about your wedding. Did you invite the Addams family?"

The remark bombed. The jury didn't know that Hoffman's nickname around the firehouse was Lurch. In his order, Blackburn would cite the exchange as an example of Brennan's "sophomoric and puerile taunts." But Brennan says the remark was a calculated effort to provoke Hoffman into showing the jury his temper; at a deposition, Hoffman had responded to a coarse quip from Brennan with "a paroxysm of anger and an invitation to fisticuffs." But not this time.

Brennan fared better with former Denver fire chief Rod Juniel, who said that he expected veterans to set an example for younger firefighters. Juniel stopped short of saying a younger employee wouldn't have faced termination over the cookbook affair, but the suggestion that age had played a part in Cadorna's sacking was hard to miss.

From Tracy Howard, Denver's former manager of safety, Brennan was able to wring some concessions that the handling of Cadorna's firing hadn't exactly followed the presumption of innocence. But Howard was a cagey witness, and Brennan's cross was soon mired in objections from the defense and stern warnings from Blackburn to stop editorializing. When Howard finally admitted that Cadorna was never convicted of anything, Brennan remarked, "There is a straight answer" — and all hell broke loose.

Blackburn sent the jury out. Then he informed Brennan that he was terminating the cross-examination because of the attorney's "improper and inappropriate" comments. Brennan began to protest. The judge told him to be quiet.

"You will either follow the simple requests, requirements and orders of this court, or you will suffer appropriate sanctions," Blackburn said. "Don't pule to the court that I am visiting your sin on the plaintiff."

Brennan wouldn't give up. A few minutes later, with the jury back in the courtroom, he requested permission to call Howard as a rebuttal witness. A bench conference ensued. "I hope that the court will set aside its contempt of me to ensure my client has a fair trial," Brennan told the judge.

"I have no personal or professional contempt for you," Blackburn replied.

"I have sensed otherwise, your honor, with all due respect," Brennan said.

Blackburn told Brennan to quit interrupting him. Brennan kept interrupting to apologize. The transcript is possibly misleading on this point, since the court reporter has no way to show two people talking at once, but it's clear that Blackburn accused Brennan of trying "to bully the court" with his interruptions, and Brennan denied it. The aggrieved judge ordered the jury removed once more and then made a record of his displeasure.

"Mr. Brennan continually and without cause interrupted the court in its remarks," he said. "If this had been the first rude, contemptuous interruption, the court would have simply disregarded it, as I have during this trial on so many previous occasions. But enough is enough."

He fined Brennan $500 for contempt of court, warning that every subsequent violation would double the fine. Testimony staggered to a close that same day, with a seemingly unchastened Brennan still making the occasional editorial comment. He now says there was simply too much at stake to back down.

"I wasn't as self-contained as I would like to have been," he admits. "I do have a somewhat commanding presence, but it also works against me. All the things that juries like about me, judges hate. They resent the fact that I don't kiss their asses. Juries like that. They see the passionate advocate who has their client's cause at heart."

Some jurors seem to have found Brennan's performance more irritating than endearing. Still, they had little inkling of the blowups that had occurred while they were out of the courtroom, and by the end of the trial, they were more focused on the smoldering holes that had been blown in the city's defense. They saw that the city attorney's office hadn't gone after Michael Brown for perjury, or Joe Hart for dubious official statements about what his investigation had uncovered; instead, the city's lawyers had fought like minks to present evidence of drunk-driving and domestic-violence charges that Cadorna had picked up during what he calls "one bad day," events that had nothing to do with his dismissal from the Denver Fire Department.

The jury saw high-ranking city officials who dithered and dodged on the stand and didn't seem capable of acknowledging that the department had screwed the pooch on this one; when Brennan congratulated Howard for finally giving a straight answer, "that was the way we all felt," one juror says. And when they went into the jury room to discuss their verdict, the eight jurors quickly discovered that there was little disagreement about what had happened to Bill Cadorna.

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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