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10 Takeaway Lessons from the Trial of the Century

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After nine days of some of the strangest scenes a Federal Courthouse in Kentucky has ever seen, the Karen Sypher trial is over with a verdict of GUILTY on all six counts rendered against Sypher. I was mildly surprised that the Government was able to get a conviction on all six counts, as I thought reasonable doubt had been shown on a least a couple of the charges. But, it was inevitable that she would get convicted on at least one count and her general lack of credibility and inconsistency of stories likely made her attempt at an acquittal impossible. She now moves to the sentencing phase in a couple of months, where we will find out how hard the Judge ulitmately wants to be on her. She is facing 26 years, but she wont get 1/4th of that in the end. However she is likely to spend time in jail and her decision to not take the early plea bargain becomes even stranger.

With the trial now over, it comes time to review. We learned a lot of important lessons this week, some of which will stay with us for a long time. So without further ado, the Top 10 lessons from the great Sypher-gate in 2010.

1. Dont Let Principle Get in the Way of Rational Decisionmaking: If this trial taught us anything, it is that when we stand up for principle, especially in a court of law when our freedom is at stake, we are likely asking for trouble. Testimony was given on the stand that last summer after Sypher was charged, she was offered a plea for Pre-Trial Diversion, which would have allowed for no jail time and the conviction to be taken off her record after one year of good behavior. She turned it down. Then reports came later that she was offered probation as late as a couple of weeks ago, again with no jail time and again she turned it down. Sypher likely made those decisions because she thought herself innocent and wanted her side of the story told. However, when one has evidence against them, such principle may have no place in the rational analysis as to what decision to take. Sypher will spend some amount of time in jail, potentially a significant amount of time, all because of her desire to stand up for her “principles.”

2. Rick Pitino’s Story is Validated: Lets not mince words here…from a legal standpoint, today’s verdict is a huge win for Rick Pitino. In his closing argument, Sypher’s Defense Attorney went all-in and told the jury they could not convict Sypher unless they were certain beyond a reasonable doubt that Pitino did not rape her. By putting it in such unequivocal terms, the Attorney gave the jury the choice to choose to validate (or not) Pitino’s version of events at Porcini’s. They showed that on the rape issue, they believed Rick. The jury obviously believed Sypher was lying on that charge, and thus the other claims (such as for retaliation) could lead to guilty verdicts. This is a huge win for Pitino, who has maintained his innocence from the beginning of this entire ordeal. Sypher serving time in jail likely wont make up for the negative publicity he has endured, but he can always point to this verdict as validation of his insistence that he did not engage in a criminal act.

3. Rick Pitino’s Life Will Never Be the Same: It took two statements from Rick Pitino to guarantee that the Sypher trial will live with him forever. Had Rick never told us that it only took him “less than 15 seconds” to be with a woman and that he completed his act “down my leg”, the entire trial would have likely remained a local story, with very little long-term ramifications. However those two lines turned the affair from a “hard to cover” sports story to a national punchline. The phrase “less than 15 seconds” will be used for years for jokes about Pitino that will not only show up in opposing teams’ arenas, but on sports shows, blogs, etc. It didnt have to be like that…he could have avoided the comment because he wasnt asked directly about the amount of time the sexual encounter ended up taking. But he volunteered the information and from now on, “Quicky Ricky”, “Ricky Three Pumps”, “Gone in 15 Seconds”, “Sticky Ricky”, etc will follow Pitino everywhere he goes.

4. Avoid Testifying on a Witness Stand at All Costs: Part of Pitino’s problem is a difficulty that he ultimately could not avoid once this thing went to trial. If you are famous, you must do whatever you can to not have to testify on a witness stand. For a person like Pitino, who is used to dealing with the media and avoiding questions he does not want to answer, a courtroom is not a comfortable place. There is nowhere else that an individual can read for your motivational book, look you in the eye and then mock the lines that are written. Anywhere else, Pitino would belittle such a person and quickly walk away. In court, you just have to take it. The most striking visual of the whole trial may have been seeing Rick, sweating and emotional on the stand…vulnerable in a way we had never seen before. It is surely a setting he never wants to be repeated.

5. People Are Strange: I guess I knew this, but I may have never seen it with the same intensity that it hit me this week. Whether it was Lester and his belt buckle, the “Driving Miss Daisy” nicknames, the engagement in a cemetery or the entire lifestyle of Dana Kolter, we saw more Jerry Springer oddities than anyone could have ever imagined. I wondered throughout the trial, is it the case that this is a particularly strange set of people or is it the case that we could see such stories about everyone if their lives were opened to the degree that it happened for these people. Regardless, I know that I will never think about “ordering a coke at Mcdonalds”, “going to Cincinnati” or “playing golf at Vahalla” in quite the same way again, thanks to the festivities from the past two weeks.

6. Married, Middle-Aged Men Can be Pigs: Potentially my favorite part of testimony of the entire trial was that of the Porcini’s bartender who told us about Rick Pitino and his friends, the group she called “The Boys.” She testified that they came in 2-3 times a week, drank and paid each other’s bar tabs, talked to everyone at the bar and generally were “a lot of fun to be around.” We also learned that they liked to flirt and lift up women’s skirts, saying “what you got under there” in the process. “The Boys” were portrayed as a group of middle-aged married men, out on the town, doing what they wanted and cheating on their wives, all while having their conduct dismissed with a “Boys Will be Boys” mentality. It was all actually rather pathetic and universally the women in the room were sickened….well except Maggie the Golf Pro, who is still waiting on her invitation to Valhalla from The Boys.

7. We All Need a Friend Like Vinny: If any thought made me sad during this entire experience, it was that of Vinny…sitting in Porcini’s while his boss got it on with a woman that was not his wife, hoping not to hear anything and just drive him home, while deleting the mental image of the “15 Seconds of Glory.” Then when Pitino sneaks off, Vinny doesnt know what to do and he sits a full hour BY HIMSELF in an empty restaurant in the middle of the night, wondering if his boss will come back and unsure of what to do. That visual…of a lonely Vinny (who looks like Newman from “Seinfeld”), alone in the dark, questioning whether his boss will return and contemplating whether it was alright to leave…well it makes me sad. If you ever see Vinny out (and if you live in Louisville, you surely well), get the man a drink and hope that you have a friend like him. Loyalty such as that is hard to come by.

8. Rick Pitino Should Have Not Tried to Play Us All: I thought Pitino was a great witness. He was believable generally, helped the government’s case and he kept himself from falling into the Defense’s traps. But having said that though, his testimony about the night at Porcini’s contained some half-truths. He testified that Karen Sypher rubbed on his leg, but that he “didnt like it”…sure thing Rick. He said that he didnt plan on having sex with Sypher, but instead stayed after the bar owner left because he wanted to “finish his drink.” Sure thing Rick…after you and The Boys had $500 worth of alcohol, you stayed until AFTER THE BAR CLOSED AND WAS LOCKED UP, to finish that last important drink. When was the last time you have been to a bar where they let you stay with no one around? The answer is never….just admit it Ricky…you wanted some action and you wanted it at that moment. We know that, dont try to hide it.

9. Lester Needs a Reality Show: Of all the moments of the trial that were the most striking (excluding the oral sex picture), the best was the second Lester Goetzinger walked in the room. He looked like a late 50s “Bobby” from “King of the Hill” and he was quickly shown to be awesome. He went with a buzz cut, a belt buckle with his name on it and a true American tale of the LG&E gas man, who comes to do a job and ends up getting a different kind of job. He delivered turkeys, hams and potted meat at the holidays and made extortion phone calls when requested. He talked about kindling a romance over soda at McDonalds and falling for a “beautiful woman” as his rationale for most of his behavior. In short, he was awesome in ways that I didnt expect and his testimony may have been the highlight of the trial. You take OchoCinco or T.O with your reality program….I will take Lester and beat you any day.

10. The Judicial System Wins Again: Its easy to get down on our judicial system and many people do. Jokes are made about lawyers and those who are “too dumb to get out of jury duty” and we often assume that trials are crapshoots left to the whims of 12 random people. But I have always thought the opposite…when a jury sits down, I genuinely think the people involved try to do the right thing. The 16 people (including alternates) who sat for this trial, followed the testimony for two full weeks. I never saw any doze off and most took notes throughout. When they deliberated, they spent nearly six hours, testament to the fact that true discussions as to the case as a whole were taking place. In addition, the attorneys involved showed themselves to be more than competent. The US Attorney’s office wasnt great, but got their conviction by being exhaustive with its evidence. And Defense Attorney James Earhart did a masterful job taking a loser of a case and making a plausible claim for innocence. The entire thing was too long and one could argue all the charges were pointless…but it showcased once again that our judicial system, despite its faults, usually does its job.

And with that, the time to cover all things Sypher is over. I spent two full weeks on the Sypher beat and it was quite the learning experience. Nothing we have ever done had this kind of national following and it was a lot of fun to know that articles and tweets I wrote were read and enjoyed by so many. It combined two of my loves, sports and law, and I really appreciate all of you who read the coverage and told me you enjoyed it. Those comments meant a lot and made the whole thing worthwhile. Now onto the next thing, and who knows what it will be….

Article written by Matt Jones