NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A defense attorney thundered in closing arguments Monday in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing trial that Gov. Chris Christie and his inner circle were “cowards” for not testifying against a former staffer on trial for using gridlock for political retaliation.
In an emotional presentation that lasted more than two hours, Michael Critchley cast client Bridget Kelly as a single mother faced with an administration more concerned with keeping Christie’s nascent presidential hopes alive than with exposing the truth when details of the scandal surfaced three years ago.
In a rebuttal summation, a prosecutor urged jurors to ignore the insinuations about Christie and others and focus on the evidence against the two defendants, which he called “devastating.”
Jurors were given the case late Monday afternoon and left for the day after brief deliberations. They are scheduled to resume Tuesday.
Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a former executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were named in a nine-count indictment in 2015 on charges they schemed to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie. They face up to 20 years in prison on the most serious counts.
The scandal involving the nation’s busiest bridge, which connects Fort Lee and Manhattan, unfolded at a time when Christie was on the brink of a runaway re-election victory and was considered a top Republican presidential contender. He wasn’t charged, but the story dogged him through a failed presidential bid.
Kelly testified during the trial that she told Christie about the lane closures a month before they happened, something Christie has adamantly denied. Critchley reminded jurors Monday that the government didn’t call Christie to say that under oath.
Cupping his hands as if holding a megaphone, Critchley practically yelled, “Chris Christie, where are you?”
Kelly was “the odd person out,” Critchley said. “The inner circle, they know what the code is: ‘Chris Christie knows nothing.’ Bridget Kelly has a different version, and that makes her dangerous. They want that mother of four to take the fall for them. Cowards. Cowards.”
In his rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna said the case wasn’t about who could have been charged or who could have been called to testify.
Critchley “wants you to make it about whether Chris Christie lied,” he told jurors. “He wants to distract you from the core of the case. Why? Because the evidence against his client is devastating.”
Kelly and Baroni testified that they believed former Port Authority official David Wildstein when he told them the realignment of access lanes to the bridge in September 2013 was part of a traffic study. Massive gridlock ensued, and Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich’s pleas went unanswered for four days — on orders from Wildstein, the defendants testified.
Critchley on Monday called Wildstein, a high school classmate of Christie’s who pleaded guilty last year, “the Bernie Madoff of New Jersey politics.” Wildstein testified that both Kelly and Baroni were fully aware of the scheme to punish Sokolich.
In his closing argument Friday, Baroni’s attorney also assailed Wildstein as Christie’s hatchet man and a liar whose testimony shouldn’t be trusted.
Khanna countered Monday that Baroni changed his story about the traffic jams at least three times, including in front of a legislative committee probing the closures in 2013. He said emails and texts among the three co-conspirators corroborated Wildstein, including a text Kelly sent him during the week of the gridlock that read, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Kelly testified she was pleased Wildstein told her the traffic study was proceeding well.
“Don’t let them whitewash it,” Khanna said. “It’s as outrageous as it sounds.”
Kelly wrote the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email the month before the lane closures. She testified she deleted that email and others because she was scared people in Christie’s administration who knew of the lane closures weren’t being forthcoming.
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