What follows is an excerpt from ' Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge,' a book where I try to explain life on the bench and the unknown parts of our legal system.
At the beginning of the fourth week of the trial, Steven Seagal took the witness stand, raised his right hand, and swore to tell the truth. The courtroom was packed. There were reporters all over the place -- many from L.A. -- who were champing at the bit to write about Seagal's involvement with the Gambino family. The 58th count of the indictment charged Cassarino and Ciccone of conspiring to extort money from the movie star, and the 59th count charged them with actually attempting to do that. They were not the most important charges in the case--and had nothing to do with Peter Gotti or the Gambino family's control of the waterfront--but they certainly brought out the crowd.
Conscious of his public persona, Seagal -- with his painted hairline and red bracelets dangling from his neck -- was clad in a chocolate-brown silk kimono, jeans, and construction boots. He testified that he was licensed to carry a gun and always carried one when he was in New York. I made sure that he did not have one with him in court. He had just flown back from Thailand--where he was making his latest movie, Belly of the Beast--for his court appearance. He described himself as an "actor, producer, director, musician, songwriter." At first he was very combative, befitting a self-proclaimed martial arts expert. However, under aggressive cross-examination his testimony started to get shaky and evasive. I told him that he had to be more responsive: "Listen to me, I don't have any experience in martial arts but I have other powers here. Just listen to the question and answer it." I then took an early lunch break "so people can cool off a little bit." When he came back into the courtroom for continued cross-examination, his tough-guy image was totally shattered. He brought two red shawls with him and asked me if he could place them over his lap to warm his chilly knees. The audience laughed.
In his testimony, Seagal told the jury that he had had a sit-down with Cassarino and Ciccone in a private room at Gage and Toliber, a popular restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. His onetime best friend and former producer, Jules Nasso, was with him. Nasso had ties to the Mafia and enlisted Ciccone to resolve an ongoing dispute that he had with Seagal over money which Nasso claimed that the movie star owed him. Seagal told the jurors that Ciccone began talking to him about "monies that I owed Jules," and "went into the fact that he wanted me to work with Jules." Seagal told Ciccone, "I'm trying," at which point Ciccone ordered him to "look at me when you are talking." Ciccone then said: "Look, we're proud people and work with Jules ... Jules is going to get a little and the pot will be split up ... We'll take a little." The meeting ended with Seagal stating that "he would try to work with Jules." Seagal testified that as he walked out of the restaurant, Jules started walking with him and said, "You know, it's a good thing you said this and didn't say that because if you would have said the wrong thing, they were going to kill you." Seagal told the jurors that he had broken up his relationship with Nasso because Nasso was using mood-elevating drugs and "going into psychotic rages." Nonetheless, he testified that he paid Nasso between $500,000 and $700,000 -- he was not too good with numbers -- after he had escaped with his life.
As Seagal recounted his real life adventure, he seemed to regain his composure and warm to the audience. He began making dramatic faces -- complete with his famous furrowed brow -- in response to questions. He grinned at a juror. When he finished his testimony and I told him that he could step down, he bowed twice to the crowd and said, "Thank you all." The media event was over. It was time to get back to the rest of the trial.
Frederic Block has practiced law for 34 years. He was appointed to the federal district court as a judge in 1994 by President Clinton. Block is the author of Disrobed: An Inside Look at the Life and Work of a Federal Trial Judge.