Will Christian Dawkins take stand in his own defense at hoops scandal trial?

Dan WetzelColumnist
Convicted basketball middleman Christian Dawkins arrives to court in New York on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (AP)
Convicted basketball middleman Christian Dawkins arrives to court in New York on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (AP)

NEW YORK — Sometime Wednesday morning, the government is expected to rest its case in the basketball corruption trial of Christian Dawkins and Merl Code.

Then comes the decision that could rock this trial, and the sport of college basketball as a whole — does Dawkins, the 25-year-old basketball middleman at the center of everything, take the stand in his own defense?

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It can sometimes be ill-advised for a defendant to testify on his own behalf, especially in a federal financial crimes case such as this. This isn't a self-defense or he said-he said criminal case.

Yet the government has presented such a mountain of evidence against Dawkins across this trial that there may be no other choice than a Hail Mary attempt. That Dawkins and Code were both convicted last October in a separate but related fraud trial and have been sentenced to six months in federal prison may also play into the decision.

Dawkins is already going to prison and the sentence if convicted in this case may be of similar length and run concurrent.

In short, there may be very little, if anything, to lose for Dawkins. Taking the stand, telling his story and hoping the jury sides with him might be worth a shot.

If so, well, buckle up.

The case centers on an alleged scheme where Dawkins and Code used their connections to bribe college basketball assistant coaches into steering their top, NBA-bound players to a new management company that would then handle financial planning and other services, including finding the players a sports agent. Little did they know that some of the money came from undercover FBI agents posing as investors.

Code, a 45-year-old Adidas consultant, has a puncher’s chance of winning. He was clearly a fringe participant in the start-up agency and his attorneys, led by Mark Moore, have done a decent job showing the limited evidence against him and the few connections to him.

Still, the feds are rarely defeated, especially in the Southern District of New York.

As for Dawkins, the outlook is far less favorable, bleak even. Prosecutors Robert Boone, Noah Solowiejczyk and Eli Mark have delivered to the jury a seemingly endless stream of evidence of Dawkins doing pretty much exactly what he is charged with.

Dawkins, a street-sharp Saginaw, Michigan native was a former runner for powerful NBA agent Andy Miller. He broke out on his own and created LOYD Management (Living Out Your Dreams) to cash in on his ties to the game and natural hustle.

Pictured on March 5, 2019, Christian Dawkins arrives at federal court in New York. (AP)
Pictured on March 5, 2019, Christian Dawkins arrives at federal court in New York. (AP)

He isn’t afraid to talk, or even boast, a trait that finds him on hours of FBI-recorded phone calls and video-taped business meetings discussing plans to dole out money in order to land NBA clients. His own words, even if they really were mostly posturing, have doomed him.

About his only defense at this point is convincing the jury that a lot of what he said on the tapes were overstatements. Also, that it was over-ambitious undercover agents who pushed the idea of bribing assistant coaches. He’s very smart and very charismatic, and while the prospect of the witness stand is never ideal, he might be able to make his case.

Might. He’s facing long odds even if he comes across well. At this point though, not taking the stand may be akin to giving up.

His attorney, Steve Haney, said Tuesday that no final decision has been made but if Dawkins takes the stand this entire thing can shift in a hurry.

Haney had previously promised to use this trial to “pull back the curtains” on college basketball and the way its system actually works. Few could pull them back wider than Dawkins. Despite being young, he was involved in scores of recruitments, deals and plots at a granular level.

He would not only presumably offer some of that up on direct, but would no doubt face a blistering cross examination from the government that would be looking to link him to every bit of corruption it can find. There are endless threads to pull here, none of which end well for college basketball, which sits on edge each day waiting to see what allegations, evidence and details emerge from the Moynihan Federal Courthouse in Lower Manhattan.

Maybe even more notable: By having his client take the stand, Haney may seek a reconsideration by Judge Edgardo Ramos about allowing additional recorded conversations featuring Dawkins talking to college basketball coaches about players and money that were initial ruled inadmissible due to relevancy. In a similar ruling, Ramos prohibited Haney from calling Arizona coach Sean Miller and LSU coach Will Wade to testify.

“At any time in a trial a judge can re-examine their earlier decision on relevancy and either keep it the same or go in a totally different direction,” said Stephen L. Hill, a lawyer at Dentons in Kansas City and former U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Missouri who once prosecuted a similar basketball corruption case involving former AAU coach Myron Piggie. “Relevancy before trial and anytime during trial are two different places in the legal discussion.”

One argument along those lines may be the government twice playing a phone call between Dawkins and financial planner Munish Sood, where they were discussing a promise from Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson about the agency signing “the No. 1 player next year,” a reference to then-Wildcat player and future No. 1 NBA draft pick DeAndre Ayton. In it, Dawkins references a discussion he had with Miller.

“Yeah, I think … it’s going to be more money than what Book said,” Dawkins said on the recording. “I mean, because, I talk to Sean, Sean’s the one that fronted that deal. So it’s going to be some money, but, I mean, we’ll figure it out.”

Presumably, the conversation Dawkins is referencing with Miller has also been recorded since Dawkins’ phone was tapped by the FBI during the summer of 2017. Dawkins could argue it should be played since it has already been referenced.

“The judge may say, after hearing some of the evidence, including testimony and documents, that Mr. Dawkins has the right to introduce these tapes if, more likely than not, they are helpful for his defense,” Hill said.

Thus far, only the government has played tapes and while plenty of dirt has been exposed, much has not. Prosecutors have been selective in their presentation. Their goal is to convict Dawkins and Code, not about exposing and cleaning up college basketball — no matter the bluster at a 2017 news conference when arrests were first made.

Which makes Wednesday a tipping-point day for college basketball.

Maybe Dawkins follows defense protocol, declines to testify and never says a word. If so, these trials are going to end with mostly a whimper.

Or maybe the feds’ case against Christian Dawkins has proven so formidable that he is driven to take his shot. Perhaps it even opens up some new recordings. No one doubts he — or the sport itself — has stories to tell.

One way or the other, here we go.

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