This bird didn’t sing: The media may have wanted a circus, but the Guv was in sunny Florida

Ten years after a plane crash killed singer Ronnie Van Zant in 1977, the remaining members of Lynyrd Skynyrd went out on what was to be a one-off tribute tour, their first shows together since the tragic death of their leader and other band members. Each night during their encore, Van Zant’s ubiquitous “Free Bird,” a single spotlight shown on an empty microphone at center stage while the band played an instrumental version of the tune. As the song climaxed with its balls-out three-guitar jam, tears were no doubt shed for the doom and weight of Van Zant’s absence.

No such tribute happened last Friday in Frankfort, where the state’s lead singer was arraigned and pled “not guilty” (by way of his four-person legal team) to three misdemeanors tying him to the state’s merit system investigation. Gov. Ernie Fletcher was sweating one out down in Florida during the whole thing, thereby missing out on the “perp walk” he seems to have earned.

Judge David Melcher slapped the presumably doomed governor with charges of conspiracy, official misconduct and political discrimination, the sum total of which says Fletcher masterminded the politics-based hiring scheme that Attorney General Greg Stumbo has been investigating since last May. Fletcher could face a year in prison and a $500 fine, as well as possible impeachment if he’s convicted and doesn’t leave office. He also may pardon himself.

The quaint Franklin County Court House sits across St. Clair Street from what appears to be a fairly dead-end commercial district, a single short block away from a thriving one, with several storefronts posting “For Rent” signs. There is no metal detector at the door, and the room where proceedings were held is cozy and fairly white, a standard old-day courtroom.

About 30 members of the media were packed into comfortably padded benches that resemble church pews, chatting and playing catch-up like some kind of weird, dysfunctional family. I discussed Louisville music, mostly bluegrass, with WDRB-TV’s Dick Irby. The guy next to me thumbed at a BlackBerry through nearly the entire proceeding. Most avoided talking about the governor. The non-junkies, that is. Their eyes go to glass when things get this heavy.

By and by, the whole thing was one big tease, and a primer for how this trial is likely to proceed. Both sets of attorneys spent far more time in closed chambers with the judge than in the actual public courtroom, ostensibly deciding scheduling matters. The whole thing took about 50 minutes, 35 or so that were spent anticipating their return, which was actually fairly amusing: The attorneys reentered the courtroom and every damn person in there stood, as is customary for a judge’s entrance. But Judge Melcher didn’t come back for at least another three minutes. Slowly, one journalist took a seat, and then another and another. The power of group-think was evident, a perfect metaphor given the circumstances of our acquaintance.

Judge Melcher somewhat predictably announced that the legal eagles had agreed to not really talk to the media about anything, which of course doesn’t take long to antagonize a pack of overeager reporters.
When court adjourned, first the defense and then the prosecutors were swarmed by TV cameras, boom mics, bright lights and tape recorders. They did their best to say as little as possible about pertinent matters. These people are trained, well-paid professionals (we’re writing the checks). They know how to say nothing while speaking actual words.

“Our intention is to try this case in the courtroom,” Steve Pitt, a recent addition to the Fletcher defense team, revealed with gravitas.

Kent Westberry, a Louisville attorney who entered the pleas on Fletcher’s behalf, explained that the waiver allowing the governor to skip his first date in court is standard legal stuff. That prompted a spell of barking from reporters rightfully wanting to know why the hell the first Kentucky governor to be indicted since Flem Sampson in 1929 gets to be on vacation during his arraignment.

Across the room, the commonwealth’s legal team was just as tight. Regarding the proposed start date of the Big Trial (expected to last two to three weeks) — Nov. 8, the day after the general election — special prosecutor Scott Crawford-Sutherland said, “We’re pleased with the schedule the judge put in place.” Such a response is of some political significance: The only other real news from Friday is that Fletcher’s team filed a motion to disqualify Stumbo and the Attorney General’s office from the case, saying the Democrat plans to run for governor and, therefore, has a conflict of interest. That said, of course, any appearance of political wrangling — even if it means Republicans now have the ability to eclipse the public flogging of their most problematic figure with an election — could be perceived as Stumbo whipping the gubernatorial horse, and that’s bad juju for a guy trying to bring down a governor who may have actually done something illegal.

By noon most everyone was out the door. Both legal teams were long gone, and the TV stations were setting up live shots for the midday broadcasts back to Lexington and Louisville and points beyond and in between. Certainly there would have been a circus had Fletcher bothered to show, but one wonders whether it would have even mattered. Being absent can sometimes be a good thing, particularly in messy, atavistic situations like this. It never was for Ronnie Van Zant, though, and his band played on without him. Soon enough, Kentucky may have to do the same.