The Karen Sypher trial has been unbelievably bizarre. Sitting in the federal courthouse in Louisville all week has been an experience unlike any I have ever had in the past. The combination of the celebrity factor, the uniqueness of the legal issues, the surreal testimony, the oddball characters and the closed-door feel has made the entire event virtually certain to never be repeated. Between stories of abortion clinics, 15 second love affairs, belt buckles, “Driving Miss Daisy”, $3,000 health insurance packages, pictures of people’s heads, the “Hoosier Daddy” motor bike company, the West Virginia game and golfers at Valhalla, it is almost impossible to believe this trial is actually real. Unlike some journalists who have all of a sudden taken to the view that “this is not funny, it is sad” (interestingly, while also telling jokes in the very columns where they decry those who laugh about the salacious details), I will freely admit the humor in all of this. If you havent read something in the past week that has made you bust out laughing or simply shake your head, then you are a better person than I. But lost in the comedy of all this is one simple question….will Karen Sypher actually be convicted? Most just assume the answer is yes, because they believe that Sypher is likely lying about her rape charge and must have surely been trying to get money from Pitino.
However, when you break down the charges, it is clear that the case against Karen Sypher is not a slam dunk. Even if you dont find Sypher credible (and almost no one does on her claims of rape), most dont realize the charges she is ACTUALLY CHARGED WITH, which are much different than the majority of the stories that have made their way to the public. With that in mind, I have decided to put my legal education to some use and breakdown the Six Charges against Sypher, and the evidence we have heard so far that actually goes into convicting her, as opposed to just making us laugh or cringe.
COUNT I EXTORTION: Lester Goetzinger:
The first charge against Sypher is that she committed extortion by getting Lester Goetzinger, the LG&E gas man, to call Rick Pitino and threaten to go to the media with the story of the alleged rape. On this issue, the US Government has had its case dented a bit during the first week of the trial. Rick Pitino received three threatening phone calls and Lester Goetzinger testified he made all three. However the first two calls, while menacing, arguably dont actually contain an extortion threat…a fact that Rick Pitino admitted while on the stand. The third call is clearly a threat…the caller says he will go to the media in two weeks with allegations of the rape. However the Defense scored big points on Tuesday, when he played all three calls back to back. The first two calls are clearly from the same person, but the third has a very different sounding voice, tone quality and confidence level. When listened to at the same time, it is plausible it was made by a different person. Add in the fact that Lester Goetzinger could tell the FBI exactly where he made the first two calls, but couldnt remember where he made the third, and “reasonable doubt” as to whether Goetzinger made the third call could exist. If doubt was raised as to whether Lester made the call, and Sypher cant be connected to the third caller, then this count could be an acquittal.
COUNT II EXTORTION: The “Demand Letter”:
Karen Sypher wrote a letter to Rick Pitino in which she asked for two cars, a house, a monthly allowance, and other items, in exchange for her protection of “Rick Pitino’s name” until the end of time. The Government has proven that Sypher wrote the letter, but the background as to how and why it was written has been disputed. The Government argues that Karen Sypher wrote it as a demand and got Tim Sypher to present it to Pitino. However the Defense did a very good job on cross-examination with Tim Sypher and he admitted that it was he who actually asked Karen Sypher to write the letter, so he would be able to tell Pitino what she wanted. Karen Sypher has tried to portray the letter as actually one requested by Pitino…at a time where he believed she was not in on it. Karen Sypher’s attorney is suggesting that Pitino was trying to get Karen Sypher to agree to deny the affair if the blackmailer went public and the letter was her request for what she would take in order to deny at that time. Because Tim Sypher asked for the letter to be written, sought Karen out the day it was written and requested she deliver it to him by a set time, reasonable doubt could be raised as to whose idea the letter may have been. If it were Pitino’s or Tim Sypher’s it will be harder for the government to convincingly claim it was Sypher acting solely to extort.
COUNT III EXTORTION: The Dana Kolter Letter:
Sypher’s attorney Dana Kolter is still testifying. So far he has told us that he wrote a letter to Pitino demanding 10 million dollars after Karen Sypher came to his house, gave him oral sex and hired him to do it. He claims it was not his idea and Karen Sypher sat right next to him while he drafted the letter. The cross-examination is Monday so we still have to see what the Defense will do with Kolter, but it is clear that he was a witness that was sketchy at best. To me, this charge was shaky from the outset. If Sypher went to an attorney, he drafted a letter on legal letterhead and she hired him as her attorney for a potential civil claim, it is hard to see how his letter can be seen as extortion. Sypher’s lawyer will likely argue that it was an offer for a settlement of a potential claim….similar to something lawyers do every day when they write insurance companies a “demand letter” asking for money prior to a suit. The defense has also claimed that Rick Pitino’s lawyers offered a sum of money and hired a mediator in the case (Pitino’s lawyer testifies this week), both facts that suggest negotiation of a civil claim, not extortion. Its clear the letter was written and in it, she demanded money for silence….but when a lawyer is involved, and numbers are being negotiated, what makes that “extortion” and not simply “legal settlement negotation” strikes me as a very fine line.
COUNT IV: Lying to the FBI about Lester Goetzinger’s calls:
The Government has 2 counts of “lying to the FBI” that seem to me to be rather strong. The US Attorney has shown rather convincingly that Sypher knew Lester Goetzinger and probably knew he made the first two calls (still unclear about the third). During her first meeting with the FBI, Sypher told the agents that she did not know who made the calls. It seems she likely knew it was Lester and the Government seems to have shown that fairly convincingly. However, Sypher did tell the FBI in a meeting the next day that it “could be” Goetzinger. Will the jury want to convict on a lying charge if she rectified the lie less than 24 hours after she told it? That remains to be seen.
COUNT V: Lying to the FBI that her relationship with Dana Kolter was “strictly business”:
Now I will admit, we havent heard Kolter’s cross-examination yet. But it seems that this is the US Government’s strongest charge. We saw a picture in the courtroom of the back of Sypher’s head between Kolter’s knees and he testified he was receiving oral sex at the time. While the picture wasnt crystal clear of that act, it was close enough. I am not sure how the Defense will rectify this situation, but if they do, it will be one creative piece of lawyering. Stay tuned.
COUNT VI: Retalation Against a Witness:
This is the final charge and essentially claims that Sypher illegally retaliated against Pitino by waiting until he went to the FBI on the extortion claims and then going to the police (and media) with a rape charge against him. This has not been addressed yet by either the Government or Defense, so the likelihood of conviction is still unclear. In order to prevail, Sypher probably needs to show that she had a reasonable basis to claim the rape charge OR that she brought that charge before Pitino went to the police on extortion. The former is unlikely but the latter has not been addressed. At this point, this seems like a likely conviction for the Government, but we dont know yet.
So there you have it. I personally think the Government’s extortion charges arent certain to get convictions, and the Defense has effectively poked holes in all of them. The jury may of course disagree and a lot will depend on how well the Defense can articulate the problems in the Government’s case. The Lying to the FBI charges seem much stronger and the Retaliation claim (which is the only one that actually goes to the heart of Sypher’s claim of rape) is still yet to be explored in great detail by the parties. Long story short….Sypher is likely to hear the word “Guilty” at least once when this trial goes to the jury…but the heart of the Government’s case is extortion…and on those charges, she might actually be acquitted.