Sally Moore
May 13, 1974 12:00 PM

It had been nearly a year since former U.S. Attorney-General John N. Mitchell and former Secretary of Commerce Maurice H. Stans had been indicted on charges of conspiring to block a federal investigation into the affairs of fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco. Now, after 26 hours of deliberation, on the 48th day of their trial, a New York federal court jury of nine men and three women found both defendants not guilty on all 18 charges against them. Stans emotionally embraced one of his lawyers. Moments later, plunging into a crush of newsmen on the courthouse steps, Stans exulted: “I feel reborn.” A smiling Mitchell took the verdict more calmly. “The truth will out,” he said. “Our fate was resting with a very fine jury.”

Their fate was also in the hands of a pair of tenacious defense lawyers, Peter Fleming Jr. and Walter J. Bonner. If it had been a historic trial, the attorneys had never been intimidated by it. If it had been the supreme test of their legal resourcefulness, they had never seemed to know they could lose. And if their clients had been among the country’s most powerful Republicans, and though Bonner was a nominal Republican and Fleming was a registered Democrat, it had never made a moment of difference. Thus, suddenly, on a balmy Sunday afternoon in New York, Fleming and Bonner could rejoice in the full flush of victory.

Stans, an accountant by profession, and Mitchell, a bond lawyer, chose the two attorneys to represent them on the basis of their trial experience. Although both defendants kept notes during the trial, they wisely left their defense to the experts.

Equally intense but curiously dissimilar, the rangy, patrician Fleming, chief defense lawyer for Mitchell, and the combative Bonner, counsel for Stans, brought impressive experience to their assignments. Fleming, a nine-year veteran of the same U.S. attorney’s staff that was trying to send his client to jail, had won 49 out of 50 cases as a prosecutor. “It’s simple,” he once explained. “In 95% of criminal cases, the guys who are indicted are guilty.” An admiring colleague thinks differently. “Peter Fleming,” he insists, “is the best criminal trial attorney in New York.”

If Fleming isn’t, Bonner quite possibly is. Like an angry terrier, he is never at rest in the courtroom, constantly bounding up from his chair to object, or leaping to the attack of a vulnerable prosecution witness. His summation to the jury in the Mitchell-Stans case was a four-hour, nine-minute soliloquy of carefully modulated outrage. It was an arm-waving, shouting, table-thumping performance that surely left its mark on its small audience. “He really went to bat for his client,” observed a deeply impressed alternate juror. “His sincerity for Stans said, ‘The way I feel about this man, I want you to feel.’ ” Fleming’s summation, though 25 minutes longer than Bonner’s, was by comparison a critical letdown. Fleming spoke 18 hours after he had expected to, and there was a feeling that he’d left his game in the locker room.

Fleming’s day-to-day style in the courtroom, however, was obviously effective. Calculatingly low-key, with an offhand charm that put the jury at ease, the silver-haired, 44-year-old Fleming strove for casualness as a matter of strategy. While Bonner saw the trial as cold-blooded combat, to be fought without quarter or humor, Fleming viewed it as an intellectual test, to be won by cunning and guileful maneuver. Slouching at the defense table, tilting back in his chair, one foot propped on a wastebasket, he was often deceptively calm. But not even in a rare unguarded moment, say observers, does Fleming forget what he’s doing. “If he’s lounging,” says a former colleague, “it’s for a purpose. He’s a natural performer in the courtroom.”

While Bonner, a vigorous 48, uses indignation with sledgehammer effectiveness, Fleming defuses courtroom tension with laughter. One member of the Mitchell-Stans prosecution team felt the whole purpose of Fleming’s performance—his jokes, his asides, his apparently irrelevant questions—was to distract the jury from the trial’s real significance. Fleming denies it, however, and insists that nothing he or his beefy assistant counsel John E. Sprizzo do in court can in fairness be considered an act. “What we do is what we are,” insists the 39-year-old Sprizzo, also a former assistant U.S. attorney. “We’d better not do what we aren’t,” cautions Fleming. “The truth of a lawyer is important.” Truth, however, never stands in the way of scrambling for a competitive edge, particularly when the opposition is a corps of clean-cut young government lawyers like the Mitchell-Stans chief prosecutor John R. Wing and his staff. Bonner nearly always calls them “district attorneys,” and the misnomer is by no means a slip. “Calling them ‘the government’ gives them a dignity they’re not entitled to,” he insists.

The key to the Mitchell-Stans trial, most observers agree, lay in the shaky credibility of government witnesses like former presidential counsel John Dean, who confessed to committing perjury elsewhere. Both Fleming and Bonner were equal to the task of demolition. Once, while interrogating former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman G. Bradford Cook, a pivotal prosecution witness, Fleming was asked by Judge Lee Gagliardi how much longer he planned to continue. “Till he cracks,” snapped Fleming. Bonner’s lust for combat was even more obvious, and he took no pains to conceal his antagonism. “The government is able to prepare its case with a great deal of time and money,” Bonner explained crisply, “and they have their ducks all in a row. I like to kick their ducks in the ass.”

The Celebration Went On For Hours

With in two hours of the acquittal, the victory celebration started for the defendants and their lawyers. Stans soon went home to be with his ailing wife. But John Mitchell hung on; it was the kind of celebration he liked. There were drinks and self-congratulations all around, plenty of hugs and horseplay, even a medley of Irish and Scottish drinking songs. Telegrams poured in from Mitchell’s former White House colleagues and from strangers. For defense lawyers Walter Bonner and Peter Fleming (who left the party early, pleading exhaustion), their skillful courtroom victory assured professional fame—and the high fees which accompany it. But John Mitchell was celebrating more than legal acquittal: for him the evening was the end of months of private anguish and public disgrace. Earlier that morning, leaving his own suite, Mitchell had been granite-faced. Since the trial began he had been a shadowy and furtive figure at the Essex House, where he had moved after leaving his wife Martha last September (PEOPLE, March 11). Fearful of being recognized in public, Mitchell had rarely used the hotel’s front door; instead, he came and went through the back entrance, often shielding his face.

Now Mitchell, relaxed and smiling, took a few phone calls in his own room before joining the other lawyers and a few close friends in Bonner’s suite. Slowly, as the evening wore on, the impassive mask Mitchell had worn for so long began to disappear. His face and manner again began to take on the assurance of authority and vindication.

After several hours of toasting one another, the group decided to end the evening with dinner in Manhattan’s Little Italy. This time, on reaching the main lobby, Mitchell deliberately led his entourage toward the hotel’s main entrance. Several well-wishers recognized him. A woman holding a camera grabbed his hand. “I want to wish you luck, Mr. Mitchell,” she said. Mitchell laughed heartily. “I don’t need luck,” he said. “Haven’t you heard? I’ve just been acquitted.”

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