NEW YORK — An unprecedented federal case that brought some of the worst publicity to college basketball in the sport’s history is officially out to the jury.
On Monday, defense attorneys made closing arguments in the bribery trial of The United States vs. Christian Dawkins and Merl Code. The government made its rebuttal summation thereafter, before Judge Edgardo Ramos put the case’s fate before the 12-person jury.
Defense attorney Steve Haney called the matter “a disaster of an investigation” in which Dawkins was “in the fight for his life” and sliced up the government’s arguments and accusations as “a lot of transcript scrabble” that was conflated with a lot of undeniable “NCAA rule-breaking.” Haney, in addition to Code’s attorney, Mark Moore, made sure to impress upon the jury that violating an NCAA rule does not equate to breaking federal law and that the jury should not look to convict Dawkins and Code just because they were willing to pay players and/or their families.
“Essentially, all this sounds like is a bunch of NCAA rules violations,” Haney said.
Dawkins and Code both face federal bribery charges stemming from allegations that they were party to and willing agents of giving college basketball coaches thousands of dollars in exchange for shepherding college prospects and players to Dawkins’ fledgling advisory/business management company, Loyd Inc.
“Essentially, all this sounds like is a bunch of NCAA rules violations.”Defense attorney Steve Haney
Haney took the government’s evidence to task, commenting on how many wiretapped phone calls and corresponding transcripts featured “chopped up conversations of what people were talking about.”
“This case was just as false as the names (of undercover agents) Jeff D’Angelo and Jill Bailey, who unlike my client, never took the witness stand,” Haney said.
Haney also brought back to the jury’s attention the contentious style of cross-examination by government prosecutor Robert Boone, when he was “chewing on the microphone, barking at Christian Dawkins” when Dawkins took the stand last week.
“This case has no soul,” Haney said. “It didn’t when the government made it up — which it did — and it never will.”
During his turn at summation, after Haney and Moore had finished, Boone took direct swipes at the actions in dispute.
“People say a lot of things, but it’s what they do that makes them who they are,” Boone told the jury. “It is painfully clear that the defendants paid bribes. It is literally on tape.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller’s name was infused into the proceedings once more; you can make an easy argument that, outside of those who have been charged in this case, no one’s reputation has been damaged more than Miller’s.
Haney played a number of phone calls previously entered into evidence to remind the jury that Dawkins on multiple occasions spoke out against D’Angelo’s plan of paying coaches. One call in particular, from June 20, 2017, has Dawkins telling Arizona assistant Book Richardson, “Sean (Miller) taking care of Rawle and them. So it ain’t no expense to Rawle. So, that’s easy. Rawle already knows you gotta pay back [unintelligible] if he don’t go with them. So we got no expenses there.”
Haney was making the case that this very call would have been the one where Dawkins would have exposed himself to being a party to the scheme, of wanting to pay coaches.
“He’s referring to Sean Miller paying Rawle Alkins and others at Arizona,” Haney said, adding a moment later, “Did anyone from the University of Arizona even testify in this case anyway?”
Boone, on rebuttal, asserted that Alkins, then-prospect Taeshon Cherry and then-Oklahoma State player Jeffrey Carroll did not have knowledge of the payment schemes happening around them. Boone depicted the players as innocent, unknowing bystanders. Mere pawns. Haney objected to this — citing afterward that it was pandering to the jury and without evidence — and his objection was sustained.
The jury will likely consider a lot of calls, but it’s June 20, 2017, that might prove to be one of the biggest days in this case. That’s the day Code and Richardson were caught on tape at the Conrad Hotel in New York, meeting with undercover agents. It’s also the day separate wiretapped calls between Dawkins and Richardson, Dawkins and Code, and Dawkins and cooperating witness Munish Sood were snatched. When Dawkins talks to Richardson, there’s no clear evidence of his intention to want to commit bribery. When he talks to Code, there’s no obvious language that lends itself to either man wanting to commit bribery. When he talks with Sood about D’Angelo, the two make fun of D’Angelo over being “just a fan” and wanting to be around players.
Haney said the “clandestine” actions of Dawkins and Code were to avoid NCAA inquiry, not the law. After all, they didn’t even know they were on wiretap.
“Listen to the calls, listen to the laughter, listen to the mockery, listen to the sarcasm,” Haney said.
Haney also referred to a critical call in which D’Angelo purportedly tells Dawkins the pay-the-coaches model was what he was willing to fund. Haney called that the most critical piece of evidence in the trial. We’ll see if the jury agrees.
And while Dawkins has been the primary target of the trial, Code was depicted by Boone on Monday as a savvy, intelligent criminal. With a two-decade history of experience in the basketball space, Boone explained to the jury that Code wasn’t going to pay coaches so obviously. Boone’s argument was that Code, after selling himself to undercover agents and cooperating witness Marty Blazer at that Conrad meetup on June 20, 2017, he was willing to slow-play the coaches.
And yet there was not one phone call entered into evidence of Code on the phone with a college coach. He wasn’t in Las Vegas when a parade of coaches took meetings with two people — D’Angelo and Blazer, plus Dawkins — they didn’t know.
Code didn’t flare onto the scene of this investigation until 2017; the case’s origins began in 2015. Code isn’t involved in nearly as many scenes, wiretaps, you name it, as Dawkins. His phone wasn’t tapped until September 7, 2017, just three weeks before this investigation went public and Code, Dawkins and eight others were arrested, including the three assistant coaches (Richardson, Lamont Evans, Tony Bland) who’ve pleaded guilty in the case.
“There is evidence in this case that the government cannot explain away,” Moore said, later adding, “the evidence shows that no matter how hard Jeff D’Angelo pushed, Merl Code didn’t bite.”
“It is painfully clear that the defendants paid bribes. It is literally on tape.”Government prosecutor Robert Boone
Haney and Moore went back to the well often on D’Angelo, who along with undercover operative Bailey, was providing the cash in this investigation. D’Angelo was the most prominent figure referenced in evidence who did not appear in the courtroom in this trial; multiple prior reports stated that D’Angelo was taken off the case in 2017 after misusing government funds. (The jury is not supposed to be privy to this information, however.)
“The United States government has the burden of proof — and didn’t bring Jeff D’Angelo before you,” Moore said. “Ask yourselves, ‘Why?'”
Boone made a stentorian argument to close the proceedings, pacing about the lectern as he laid out for the jury why Dawkins and Code were guilty in the eyes of the government. He emphasized the videos of Dawkins, in Vegas, taking envelopes with cash and handing them to college assistants. (Dawkins testified the coaches gave the money back, and that he deposited the money; the facts of those deposits and exact money amounts are still in dispute.)
Boone singled out three college assistants, saying former Clemson assistant Steve Smith “knew what was going on” when he met with Dawkins, D’Angelo and Blazer in Las Vegas as they discussed recruitment of Zion Williamson at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Boone said former Alabama assistant Yasir Rosemond “was practically falling over himself to meet people who have resources” and that former UConn assistant Raphael Chillious said “yeah, we need it” when Dawkins told him at that meeting “we’re here to give you the ammunition you need.”
Disregarding Dawkins’ testimony that he got the money back from coaches after telling them to go along with the charade (there is no direct evidence of this), Boone asked the jury a simple rhetorical question: “Would you risk your entire career for free to help pull off a prank? Obviously you wouldn’t do that.”
Actions vs. words has been the crux of this case from the start. It was Dawkins’ decision to get involved with D’Angelo. It was his choice to step on that two-story yacht in Battery Park in June 2017, and to sign a business agreement, and to not object when $25,000 in cash was exchanged, and to set up meetings with coaches in Vegas.
Those videos of the coaches in the Cosmo are damning and problematic. Boone even made reference to the unusual nature of the meetings, but then went on to praise Code’s intelligence, while attempting to convict him, saying “Code wanted the scheme to work in smart way.”
As Boone made his accusations against Code and put the finishing touches on the government’s ambitious case against college basketball, the defendant remained quiet but continually shook his head in protest.