Michael T. Stevens, accused of killing five people with mail bombs, has been on his best behavior the past three weeks.
He sat at his trial, listening in silence, as 59 prosecution witnesses testified in horrifying detail about the killings in Cheektowaga, West Valley and Rochester. He showed no reaction for three days as his former best friend, Earl Figley, accused him of planning the scheme and building the bombs.
Now, as the prosecution case winds down in federal court, trial sources say Stevens is itching to tell the jury his side of the story.
Although criminal defendants seldom take the witness stand, sources familiar with Stevens say there is at least a 50-50 chance he will testify in his own defense. His two court-appointed attorneys, Peter Pullano and William Easton, are not ruling out the possibility.
"We haven't made that decision yet," Pullano said late last week. "Certainly in any case, the decision to have a defendant testify isn't made until the prosecution rests its case.
"Then a defense lawyer talks to his client. Ultimately, that decision is made by the client," he said.
Stevens won't be able to stop himself from taking the stand, according to a former prosecutor who knows him well.
"I'd bet my bottom dollar that he will testify," said Michael A. West, an Albany-area lawyer who successfully prosecuted Stevens in a previous trial. "If he does testify, I want to be there. It will be some of the most interesting testimony you'll ever hear in your life."
West, former district attorney of Schoharie County, speaks from experience. In 1987, he convicted Stevens of felony fraud and forgery charges in a
case involving a coupon book scam. West said the two-week trial that took place in the Village of Schoharie was the most bizarre court proceeding he has ever seen.
By far, the most effective witness against Stevens was Stevens himself, West recalled.
"He convicted himself. He ranted and rambled and implicated himself, over and over again," West said.
"The very first question I asked him was, 'What is your name?' It took him 40 minutes to answer. At that point, he was calling himself David Crediford. He went through all kinds of explanations to the jury, as to why he used four or five different aliases. I just sat back and let him talk.
"He (Stevens) considers himself the master salesman. He even told the jury that. He told them, 'I can sell anything to anybody.'
"When I made my closing statement, I told the jury, 'You heard what he told you. He's the master salesman. He's trying to sell you a story.' "
The trial had a "circus atmosphere" unlike anything he has ever seen, West said.
"When I finished my closing statement, Mike got up and started applauding, right in front of the jury. At another point, when the judge threatened to hold him in contempt, Stevens' father jumped up and yelled, 'Judge, you don't know who you're screwing with.' "
Another moment that sticks out in West's mind is when Stevens was asked what he does to people he doesn't like.
"He said, 'I vegetablize them,' " West said.
The recollection sends a shudder through West, especially now that Stevens is accused of sending shrapnel-loaded booby-trap bombs that killed five people in December 1993.
Stevens spent almost two years in federal prison after the fraud convictions.
West said Stevens will be compelled to testify in the bombings case because he "is a man who feels he has never done anything wrong in his entire life, a man who has been persecuted by the authorities."
If West was Stevens' lawyer at the bombings trial, would he put the defendant on the stand?
"Absolutely not," West said. "Any lawyer who had private dealings with him would be able to see that he cannot be controlled on the witness stand. If he does not take the stand, it will be because his lawyers have been able to talk him out of it. But it's ultimately the client's decision."
Observers at Stevens' trial before U.S. District Judge Michael A. Telesca have been surprised by his calm demeanor. During pretrial hearings, he sometimes held up a sign reading "This is a joke" when he didn't like a witness, but he's been quiet throughout the trial.
Telesca has imposed a gag order, barring defense lawyers and law enforcement officials in the case from commenting outside the courtroom. But numerous observers at the trial have told The Buffalo News that the trial appears to be going extraordinarily well for the prosecution.
Defense lawyers told jurors they would prove that Figley, who took a plea deal, was the sole mastermind of the bombings. But those who watched Figley's testimony say Easton's cross-examination of Figley did little damage to his credibility.
Another witness, a Rochester police officer, also buttressed Figley's testimony. The officer testified that, after Figley and Stevens were taken into custody a day after the bombings, Stevens yelled at Figley, "Don't make any statements, Earl."
"The evidence has been overwhelming, especially Figley's testimony," said one frequent court observer. "Stevens may be thinking he has nothing to lose by taking the stand himself."
Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office hope to wrap up their case in a week. Defense lawyers will then present their case.
Whether Stevens' testimony will be part of it is unknown. The defense is not required in federal court to give prosecutors advance notice of witnesses.