Patrick Cannon

Patrick Cannon defense strategy rare but not unheard of

In 1999, a longtime Mecklenburg County department head convicted of taking kickbacks blamed it in part on his addiction to marijuana.

Last year, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. attributed his embezzling of $750,000 in campaign money to bipolar depression.

Now, the lawyers for former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon want to delay the Democrat’s sentencing hearing so a New York psychiatrist can testify before Cannon’s punishment is handed down.

All three examples involve an unusual legal strategy in corruption cases: the use of personal behavioral information to account for the criminal activity of highly public figures.

Cannon is scheduled to be sentenced in two weeks after pleading guilty in June to accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents posing as real-estate investors. He was arrested and resigned in March, not long after the FBI alleges that he solicited a $1.2 million kickback in the mayor’s office.

Now, Cannon’s attorneys have asked to delay sentencing for two weeks so Dr. Richard Dudley can testify on Cannon’s behalf.

U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney of Charlotte has not ruled on the request, saying he wants to know more about what Dudley, who has a history of serving as an expert witness in criminal and civil trials, is expected to say.

For now, that remains a mystery. A recorded message at Dudley’s business phone said his office in New York City is closed until next Tuesday. In a filing this week, Cannon’s attorneys say Dudley is out of the country on vacation, and business obligations will keep him from attending the Sept. 25 sentencing hearing in Whitney’s courtroom.

James Ferguson, Cannon’s lead attorney, declined comment when asked Wednesday how Dudley’s testimony will be used.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, whose office is prosecuting the case, also declined to comment on the defense’s use of Dudley or how prosecutors might counter in court.

Legal experts in Charlotte say psychological testimony in corruption cases is rare but not unprecedented.

In 1999, Bill Culp, the county’s former longtime election chief, blamed his decision to accept bribes from voting machine interests on an addiction to marijuana. Culp was sentenced to 30 months in prison, and served 20 before being released. At Culp’s sentencing hearing, the prosecutor derided his claims of addiction.

As with Cannon, Jackson, a congressman from Chicago, was the subject of a long-running corruption probe. His claims of poor health started with exhaustion and gastrointestinal problems before ending up with bipolar depression.

The federal prosecutor handling the case heaped skepticism on claims that mental problems were at the root of Jackson’s crimes, pointing out that Jackson’s embezzling covered seven years and involved 3,100 separate transactions. He was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison; his wife was sentenced to a year.

In Cannon’s case, the impact of any psychological testimony could be compromised by the fact that Dudley lives 650 miles from Charlotte. That makes it unlikely that Cannon was a regular patient. Instead, Dudley could be offering a professional opinion on material he’s been sent to read.

Charlotte attorney George Laughrun said the psychiatrist may be used to bolster a “diminished capacity” defense, meaning that Cannon committed crimes in a weakened psychological state, perhaps involving drugs or alcohol.

Or Dudley may attempt to prove that Cannon’s crimes are “aberrant behavior,” completely out of character with an otherwise law-abiding life, Laughrun said.

As with the Jackson case, however, any psychological defense for Cannon collides with the formidable case against him. On the day of his arrest, the FBI released a lengthy affidavit detailing how Cannon accepted a series of bribes and worked to conceal them.

Could Cannon now claim that drugs or alcohol or a damaged mental state clouded his judgment?

Sure, said Charlotte defense attorney James Wyatt, but there’s a catch: “Any psychiatric testimony will have to acknowledge all the actions outlined in detail in the criminal complaint.”