Hurricane Brooks: The Trial of the Century (Finally) Ends

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The trial of the century in the United States--hands down, don't even try to compare it with anything else-- began eight months ago in the wind and snow of New York's Long Island. It ended suddenly Tuesday morning in late-summer sunshine when federal jurors finally convicted David H. Brooks, the former body armor manufacturer and newborn television legend.

What made special the longest trial anyone can remember in Central Islip wasn't that it ultimately generated guilty verdicts against the former body armor manufacturer on all 17 counts against him--corporate fraud, insider trading, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, etc. Federal prosecutors clearly had a strong case to present. And U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert generally allowed them to present it over the protestations of defense attorneys.

What made the trial truly unique was the chaotic, even devilish way in which it unfolded. Unwieldy, threatening, full of sound and fury and breathtaking moments, Hurrricane Brooks might be the simplest way to describe the tumult that took place at the (relatively) new Alphone D'Amato United States Courthouse. At times, there was as much drama and intrigue in the courtroom outside of the presence of jurors as there was when jurors were present and receiving evidence. And it's not like jurors were all angels, either, or the case on the merits was a yawner.

Too salacious perhaps for The New York Times (which chimed in here in mid-trial), apparently too much trouble for the Associated Press, and unrecordable as a federal trial court proceeding, the Brooks trial might have been lost to posterity had it not been for veteran Newsday reporter Robert Kessler. Fortunately, for history's sake and our own, the brave and dutiful Kessler (he was the target of defense motions toward the end of the trial) regularly covered the proceedings--the only journalist to do so by anyone's reckoning. His post-verdict piece just drips with understatement. Of the Brooks trial, Kessler wrote

It's not an everyday federal trial in which an FBI agent walks into a courtroom in the middle of a trial and seizes the contents of a defendant's wastebasket as part of a still ongoing investigation into whether Brooks tampered with the jury. Or in which the defense asserts that the payment of company money to prostitutes might be an acceptable technique to motivate employees. Or in which a defendant says he is entitled to have his company pay for the grave of his mother, camp tuition for his children, a $60,000 sculpture of a Wall Street bull, family trips to St. Barts and St. Tropez, or allegedly drains millions of dollars off through a shell company to pay for the upkeep of harness stables.

Indeed, no one closely involved in United States v. Brooks et al. will likely ever forget it or fail to re-tell its most bizarre moments. There was of course the interesting (but all-too-familiar) crime--looting a valuable company out of hundreds of millions of dollars which was then lavishly spent. There was salacious evidence of corporate funds spent on "brothel tents" at parties and $35,000 worth of pens and memory-erasure drugs. But the trial itself generated the need for body cavity searches. And secret notes subsequently found. And the involvement of Scotland Yard. And a juror who had to leave duty to serve time in jail. You could make a decent movie out of the crime. Or you could make a solid movie out of the trial. Or you could make a really good movie out of both. Just sayin.'

Or you could just write a book filled with the layers of legal analysis that would accompany the trial and Tuesday's convictions of Brooks and a co-defendant, Sandra Hatfield (convicted of 14 of the 16 charges against her), both of whom were alleged to have run their company called DHB Industries into the ground. Jurors found unanimously that Brooks defrauded the company out of nearly two hundred million dollars, partially as a result of an illegal pump-and-dump scheme he hatched and ran with Hatfield. Don't focus as much on how Brooks spent the money once he got it, prosecutors told jurors at the end, focus upon how Brooks got the money in the first place.

Barring an unexpected reversal on appeal, both defendants are likely going to serve significant prison time. Indeed, Brooks likely will spend at least a decade, and probably more, in a federal penitentiary. And he still faces more federal charges, including at least one contempt charge stemming from his conduct at trial. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys refused to comment after the verdict, Kessler reports, and that's probably because they all have gone home to see their friends and families for the first time since last winter. And Judge Seybert? If she is not reversed on appeal, and she probably won't be, she deserves the judicial equivalent of a Purple Heart.

Following the verdicts, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was direct: "This case was fundamentally about stealing and lying," said FBI Assistant Director In Charge Janice K. Fedarcyk. "To commit the theft and reap the insider trading windfall, and to conceal it all, Brooks and Hatfield lied to shareholders, lied to auditors, lied to regulators." The Internal Revenue Service was a little more subtle. "DHB shareholders invested their money for the production of body armor for the American military and law enforcement, not to finance the lavish lifestyles of corporate insiders through their theft and deception," stated IRS Special Agent-in-Charge Charles R. Pine. The defendants thus now face fines and, for Brooks especially, massive forfeiture actions aimed at recouping some of the money. 

What happens next isn't the only mystery. What just happened still isn't so clear. The case and its cast of characters were so unwieldy that they spawned more questions than they answered-- a rare occurrence in a criminal justice system designed to whittle away half-truths and legends. Why did it take jurors 14 days over two months to determine Brooks' guilt after a trial dominated by prosecutors and their evidence? What prompted the jury tampering investigation and how will it play out now? Why did a juror sent a note to the judge suggesting that he or she was fearful for his or her life?

There is one unalterable bit of good news that emerged at trial, however, and it shouldn't be overlooked. The looted company, DHB, manufactured body armor for our troops and police. But amid the hookers and the booze and the belt buckles and the pens there was no evidence introduced at trial suggesting that DHB shirked its duty to provide a safe produce. In fact, the testimony revealed, Hatfield was intensely interested in ensuring the quality of the product she was selling. You can bet you will hear that story from her attorneys at her upcoming sentencing.

And you can bet we haven't head the last of Brooks, the defendant who went up to trial as a legendary scoundrel and came down from it a trial legend. 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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