Binion prosecutor's style focuses jury on his substance

Even with the aid of computer-generated graphics, Chief Deputy District Attorney David Roger didn't leave the jury wide-eyed and breathless during his closing argument Monday in the Ted Binion murder trial.

As ever, Roger worked slowly, like a stone mason chipping through granite. Roger's courtroom persona can easily fool the casual observer, who invariably first focuses on his methodical and halting rhetorical style. Several times in the early days of trial, courthouse critics cracked that Roger sounded a little like Lawrence Welk with his uh-one and uh-two cadence.

Although initially distracting, Roger's style not only slows down the jury but forces it to listen closely to what he has to say. In the heavily circumstantial case, what Roger has had to say is almost as important as the evidence presented.

The jurors appeared to be listening closely Monday as he gave the prosecution's closing argument. Roger went a long way toward making a farce out of the defense theory that Binion probably committed suicide on Sept. 17, 1998. And he did so without raising his voice more than a few times.

Roger resembles a legal lion only when sitting next to his equally understated co-counsel David Wall. Between them they haven't been good for a single laugh during the six-week trial, but then murder, kidnapping and robbery are not laughing matters.

Watching them work reminds me of Dean Smith's great North Carolina basketball teams of a generation ago as they executed the four-corners offense. The games lacked flash, but rock-solid North Carolina didn't often lose.

Courthouse observers note the similarity in speaking styles between Roger and his mentor, legendary local prosecutor Mel Harmon.

Harmon carried off the persona of the august, apolitical prosecutor whose solemn duty it was to perform the Lord's work here on Earth better than anyone I have ever seen. With his deep baritone, church elder's conviction and splendid logic, Harmon commanded the jury's every waking moment.

Roger lacks Harmon's shock of gray hair and fire-and-brimstone aura, but he has shown a dogged persistence throughout trial. He and his partner, Wall, are not exactly blessed with strong witnesses in this case. A few appear to have escaped the set of "Deliverance II," and even the victim of the extortion allegations, Leo Casey, looks like Webster's definition of sleazy con artist.

What he has lacked in substantial factual foundation Roger has made up for in quietly tearing to pieces several of the defense's key theories. On Monday, he shredded the notion that Binion was suicidal at the time of death.

He reminded the jury that despite all his flaws Binion did not deserve his fate: "He was a human being, and that's all that's required."

Then he spent more than an hour snapping the defense's suicide theory. As Binion called me only two days before his death to discuss future plans for a book and a movie, I have long believed the suicide theory was heavily flawed. Roger exploited each weakness: Binion had opened an investment account shortly before his death; emotionally upbeat, he gave then-gubernatorial candidate Jan Jones a $40,000 cash donation in an attempt to gain a friend in future fights with state gaming regulators; he expressed anger, not depression, upon learning of the relationship between co-defendants Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish; he bothered to pick up the newspaper the morning of his death; he discussed purchasing a horse ranch with a real estate agent; friends who had known him more than 20 years described him as his normal, gregarious self; and even Peter Sheridan, the man who dealt him the heroin, remembered him talking about riding horses in Pahrump.

Roger displayed emotion sparingly: when describing the crimes alleged and the relationship between Tabish and Murphy, and when raising the all-pervasive issue of greed.

Beyond the words, you could hear consummately understated David Roger chip, chip, chipping away.

In a few days we'll all know just how closely the jury has been listening.

John L. Smith's column appears Wednesday in the Nevada Appeal. Reach him at


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