OTTAWA It has been a mannered sparring for the most part, between two masters at their trade – the crafty politician, who has told this same story now so many times, and the patient defence lawyer, who, after more than 30 years in the lively criminal courts of Winnipeg, has faced his share of skillful witnesses.
Under the sweeping glass ceiling at Ottawa's old city hall, where the Oliphant inquiry is being held, lawyer Richard Wolson and former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney spent much of yesterday staring straight-faced at each other over the rims of their glasses.
Mr. Wolson leaned casually against his podium and asked in his even, unhurried voice about envelopes stuffed with cash and mysterious hotel meetings, waiting out Mr. Mulroney's careful answers.
A rare jab came late in the day when Mr. Mulroney, in a suddenly softened tone, pronounced on the rarity of an error-free life at 70. Mr. Wolson, who had tried to interrupt, fairly rolled his eyes: “That's why I was cutting you off. Because I have heard it often.”
His impressive coiffure aside, Mr. Wolson is known more for his diligent preparation than his showmanship. He likes to write out his questions for cross-examination, one of his long-time partners says, and unlike many other defence lawyers, he rarely speaks to reporters. He has been poring over documents for the inquiry since last September, and, most nights since testimony began, he is up until midnight, often alone, preparing for the next day.
“He is patient and he studies his brief,” says Nate Nurgitz, a recently retired Court of Queen's Bench judge and former Conservative senator, who lives on the same Winnipeg street as Mr. Wolson. During the only trial in which Mr. Wolson appeared before him, a fraud case, the charges were eventually dismissed, largely because Mr. Wolson had destroyed the credibility of the prosecution witnesses.
“The trick of the trade isn't how slick you are, it's how much work you put it into it,” Mr. Nurgitz says. “He's a very hard-working guy.”
In Manitoba, Mr. Wolson is known for representing police officers in criminal cases, a testament to his skill as a defence lawyer since many would have found themselves on the other end of his cross-examinations.
This is not his first high-profile public hearing: In 2001, he served as counsel at the hearing into the wrongful conviction of Thomas Sophonow. And he found himself in the witness chair at an inquiry last year into the case of one his former clients, Derek Harvey-Zenk, a Winnipeg police officer who was given house arrest in a plea bargain, following a conviction for dangerous driving causing death.
Mr. Wolson was raised in a poor, single-parent household in the north end of Winnipeg. Since graduating from law school, he has always concentrated on criminal law. Jeffery Gindin, one of the partners at his firm, says he particularly savours cases with larger legal issues at stake.
And, as one Manitoba Crown attorney who has faced him in court attests, his deliberate, occasionally plodding approach during cross-examinations shouldn't be underestimated.
“He's very, very smooth,” says Brian Wilford, who lost a manslaughter trial last summer in which Mr. Wolson was the defence lawyer.
In the trial, Mr. Wilford says, a witness changed his story under Mr. Wolson's cross-examination. “I don't know if you can anticipate where he's taking you. He always has some place he's going, but quite often it's a secret until it's sprung.”
There may be no sudden surprises at the Oliphant inquiry, with Mr. Mulroney's testimony expected to wrap up on Tuesday. But certainly, Mr. Gindin says, this cross-examination will be a highlight in a long career – it's the rare lawyer who gets a former prime minister on the witness stand. Returning to the assault and manslaughter cases of Winnipeg, Mr. Gindin suggests, will take some getting used to again.
“It's a hard act to follow,” he says.
With a report from Greg McArthur