Second Binion case goes to the
Judge's objectivity more in question now than ever
INSIDE VEGAS by Steve Miller
November 22, 2004
Murphy Judge autographing books describing
(Gary Thompson Review
(KLAS TV News)
LAS VEGAS - During the outset of the just completed Binion "murder"
retrial, Clark County District Court Judge Joseph Bonaventure was on good
behavior. He sat silently and expressionless through the first four weeks
of often boring testimony. He would joke with both sides, try to ease tensions,
and make eye contact with whomever was speaking. However, the mood drastically
changed when Becky Behnen, estranged sister of the deceased Ted Binion,
began appearing in the courtroom during the final weeks of testimony.
As Behnen began watching from the third row, the judge's demeanor transformed
into something familiar to first trial observers. He began to regularly
berate the defense attorneys in front of the jury -- this time Michael
Cristalli, accused murderess Sandy
Murphy's chief defense counsel. In one instance, the judge told Cristalli
(his former law clerk) to stop talking to Murphy while a prosecutor was
speaking, and again screamed that Cristalli should "Show more respect,"
and address the judge as "Your honor."
He made no such admonishments to Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher
Lalli, or co-prosecutor Robert Daskas, at least not while the jury was
The Judge also began giving obvious silent signals to the jury through
his body language -- looking into space or taking notes when defense attorneys
asked questions of their experts. When prosecutors rose to speak, the judge
would be seen putting down his pen and making direct eye contact. The jury
could not help but notice.
In the meantime, some observers said the bailiff made adjustments to
the thermostat in the courtroom each time the defense had the floor. Court
observers said the temperature became uncomfortably warm during defense
testimony, and cooled to a comfortable level during prosecution testimony.
Defendant Rick Tabish's defense attorney Tony
Serra made light of the alleged temperature changes during former Las
Vegas mayor Jan Jones' testimony. Also, Judge Bonaventure was seen offering
prosecution witnesses a glass of water during their testimony, but not
affording defense witnesses the same courtesy.
Coincidentally, Clark County District Attorney David
Roger also started showing up in the courtroom gallery about the same
time as Becky Behnen appeared on the scene. The DA must not be too busy
this time of the year to be able to spend so much time away from his office.
This is the same Judge and same soon-to-be DA that attended an August
11, 2001 book signing party at the Horseshoe casino formerly owned by Ms.
Behnen. There they autographed dozens of books containing the following
paragraph: "But the most enjoyable privilege might have been having sex
with Murphy right under the noses of the guards. At one session, while
the lawyers and other defense team members were talking with the two defendants,
Murphy was observed slipping to her knees under the table and giving oral
sex to Tabish. Defense team members could hardly believe their eyes as
other team members continued the discussion as if nothing unusual was happening.
The corrections officers, sitting outside the boardroom, apparently never
saw Murphy disappear under the table."
The above statement appeared on page 284 of the books signed by Judge
Bonaventure, the future DA, and a future judge -- all entrusted with the
duty of seeking justice -- not self-engrandizement.
"Keep well, Judge Bonaventure"
Judge scolding Murphy
"Best Wishes, Dave Roger"
"Enjoy the book,
Soon after Ms. Behnen's autograph party at the Horseshoe, the Nevada
Supreme Court ruled that Judge Bonaventure made serious legal errors during
the first trial and remanded the case back to his court for retrial. That's
when he should have recused, but didn't. He said he could be objective,
though he had promoted a book that demonized litigants still under his
jurisdiction, and though several complaints
with the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline about his attendance
at the book signing, he insisted on presiding over the televised retrial.
(SAM MORRIS / LAS VEGAS SUN)
The secret complaint publicly surfaced when George Knapp of KLAS
TV News reported hearing of it two weeks before the retrial was scheduled
to begin. By then it was too late for the Commission to act, and defense
attorneys wanted to get on with the case, especially after their clients
had already served years behind bars for a purported crime that had never
adequately been proven.
The Judicial Discipline Commission procrastinated
for twenty-nine months while spending taxpayer money on a private investigation
firm to verify the charges. At this late date, the commission has still
failed to render a decision or give reason for their delay, and its yet
to be officially determined whether Judge Bonaventure was unbiased when
he went to Behnen's casino to promote a book about a case still on his
docket. The Commission's lack of action for twenty-nine months cast a shadow
over the objectivity of a judge, and could come back to haunt him in the
event of a mistrial or second appeal.
During closing statements Thursday, Serra who lives and practices mainly
in California, stated that the family that made its fortune in the gambling
world wanted someone to be held responsible for Ted Binion's death. He
also told the jury that the rich family paid hundreds of thousands of dollars
to a private investigator who then paid tens of thousands to prosecution
witnesses for their testimony. He also emphasized that if he -- being from
San Francisco -- had paid defense witnesses to testify, the jury would
have wanted him arrested. He went on to say that in Las Vegas, "what casinos
want, casinos get," insinuating that there is a double standard of justice
-- one for ordinary citizens, and another for the casino "barons," as he
Attorney Tony Serra
(SAM MORRIS / LAS VEGAS SUN)
Such criticism of our town's only industry could not have been made
by any local attorney who wanted to stay in business. To "fall on his sword,"
as did Serra for his client, would be the end of a local attorney -- or
judge's -- career since the casinos wield unimaginable monetary and political
clout. I should know. In 1991, while I was running for Mayor of Las Vegas,
I walked into the Horseshoe unannounced and walked out with two hundred
$100 bills stuffed into my pockets. (Click here
for the story.)
While Serra was making his closing
statement, Judge Bonaventure squirmed for all to see -- his face grimacing
more and more with every word that demonized the casino business. Serra
asked the jury to understand that no one has the right in Las Vegas to
challenge the "Gods" of the casinos. That Ted Binion's fortune was destined
to go back to his family even though he willed a large portion of it to
Murphy -- a portion including his Palomino Lane estate where he was notorious
for burying treasures underground and in the attic.
This may have been the reason Murphy appeared so distraught on a tape
taken the day following Binion's death. Unauthorized persons including
former Clark County Public Administrator Jared Shafer and attorney Jim
Brown contaminated the death scene while Murphy was prohibited from entering
until she could convince police she lived there after showing her Nevada
driver's license. When she did gain entry the next day, she and other witnesses
said the house had been looted.
During the retrial, it was obvious Judge Bonaventure is not a good poker
player, and that Becky Behnen is. This was evidenced by their contrasting
facial expressions during Serra's anti-casino closing statement, especially
when he exclaimed, "We're here because royalty has been insulted." "The
power structure will not allow the mistress to live in the hallowed ground
of our royalty." "She is an outsider. We will destroy her," obviously referring
to the Behnen family who paid witnesses cumulatively over $100,000 to help
convict Murphy and Tabish, along with paying private investigator Tom Dillard
an alleged $400,000 to gather and prepare certain prosecution witnesses
for both trials.
Even when Serra yelled "Hail Caesar!" in reference to her, Behnen sat
stone faced in the gallery.
Never in the history of Sin City have I seen a DA allow so much outside
interference in a case his department was prosecuting, nor can I remember
a time when prosecution witnesses were paid up to $20,000 each for their
This, while Becky Behnen reportedly hated
her siblings during the years prior to Ted's death -- years when Ted was
preparing to remove her from the Horseshoe and take back control. (Conspicuously
absent from the retrial courtroom were Becky's husband Nick
and son Benny.)
Becky and family mourning loss
In a gambling town, you don't diss the casinos or their esteemed
owners, and here was a famous San Francisco attorney doing exactly that
on national TV! The Judge and Becky's faces read like a book as Serra said,
"How dare she" (Murphy) challenge the "Gods" of the casinos?
Judge Bonaventure may have been thinking about how, following the tarnished
verdict of the first trial, former Binion case prosecutors David Roger
and David Wall, along with their-then boss, ex-District Attorney Stu Bell,
used the convictions to catapult into higher office.
Roger was elected DA, while Wall and Bell were elected District Court
Judges. Also, Judge Bonaventure has often been mentioned as a contender
for a seat on the Nevada Supreme Court. If the retrial jury returns an
opposite ruling, it could have a devastating effect on the foursome's possible
future political aspirations.
Everyone around here knows it's the casinos that make or break local
political careers such as that of Joseph Bonaventure, or his recently elected
28 year old son Joe
Bonaventure, who is about to be sworn in as a Justice of the Peace.
It takes millions of dollars to run a political campaign in Nevada, and
the casinos are the cash cows that make successful campaigns happen, especially
for judges who want to someday sit on the state Supreme Court, or see their
offspring elected to public office.
The trial ended and the jury went into deliberation late Friday afternoon.
The retrial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish in a monarchy like Las Vegas
was an unnatural phenomenon. In the old days, those who dared challenge
the "Gods" didn't see the light of a courtroom. Most ended up in shallow
graves just over the state line. Benny Binion, Bugsy Siegel, Moe Dalitz,
and Meyer Lansky must be spinning in their graves!
CHRONOLOGY OF STORIES BY STEVE MILLER ON THIS SUBJECT:
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