Coppedge Trial Starting Tomorrow?

We have been aware of internet rumors that the Coppedge trial will start tomorrow, 12 March. This is the case filed by David Coppedge, the creationist who claims he was wrongfully demoted (and later fired) by his employer because he was promoting Intelligent Design (ID) on the job. As you recall, he used to work as a computer technician for Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is part of Caltech. He also maintains a creationist website: Creation-Evolution Headlines — which was recently moved here.

Our last post on this topic was Coppedge v. JPL & Caltech: Continued Again, and at that time we had no authoritative clue as to when the trial would begin. But now there’s an article at the website of Fox News with this headline: Former NASA specialist claims he was fired over intelligent design. It says, with bold font added by us:

Opening statements are expected to begin Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court after two years of legal wrangling in a case that has generated interest among supporters of intelligent design. The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian civil rights group, and the Discovery Institute, a proponent of intelligent design, are both supporting Coppedge’s case.

The rest of the article is mostly background on the case, with the role of Coppedge in JPL’s Cassini mission a wee bit puffed up. For example:

David Coppedge, who worked as a “team lead” on the Cassini mission exploring Saturn and its many moons, alleges that he was discriminated against because he engaged his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design and handed out DVDs on the idea while at work. Coppedge lost his “team lead” title in 2009 and was let go last year after 15 years on the mission.

Jeepers — JPL couldn’t have got to Saturn without Coppedge! They also quote Josh Rosenau, from the National Center for Science Education, who says — correctly — that this should be a routine employment case. Then, for journalistic balance, they quote a well-known Discoveroid:

“It’s part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we’ve seen that for several years,” said John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. “This is free speech, freedom of conscience 101.”

All things considered, it’s a fair article. But there’s nothing in it about the other internet rumor that this will no longer be a jury trial. So we’ll just have to wait to see how things go.

Oh, wait! There’s also a new post at the blog of the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute‘s creationist public relations and lobbying operation, the Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids, a/k/a the cdesign proponentsists).

The Discoveroids’ article is Coppedge Trial Update: Fox News, AP, UCLA First Amendment Scholar Weigh In. They say:

Coppedge has waived his right to trial by jury and has elected to try the case before Judge Hiroshige who will decide all matters of fact and law.

On Monday morning Judge Hiroshige will hear oral argument before trial on questions of evidence, what gets in, what’s out. Later in the day, Coppedge and JPL will give their opening statements of the case. The following day, Tuesday, Coppedge takes the stand.

We usually don’t rely on anything the Discoveroids say, but in this case they’re likely to be accurate. We can’t figure out, however, why Coppedge decided to waive the jury trial.

Anyway, it looks like the fun starts tomorrow. Stay tuned to this blog.

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33 responses to “Coppedge Trial Starting Tomorrow?

  1. Charley Horse

    Link was posted yesterday in comments….
    http://lacanadaflintridge.patch.com/articles/opening-statements-in-intelligent-design-case-slated-for-monday
    …A judge will decide the outcome of the case, not a jury, paintiff’s attorney William Becker said Friday. Coppedge plans to take the stand Tuesday morning, Becker said….

  2. They might have waived a jury trial if all their fluff exhibits got rejected by the court. The object was to bamboozle the jury. Without a jury they can cry “activist judge” influenced by the Darwinian Pressure Group or whatever.

    This judge has 30 years experience. I doubt he’s going to be suckered by these con men.

  3. I guess I should have expected the “its a case about intelligent design” in the media. The JPL is not allowed to talk, whereas the DI and ADF can spout all of the crap they want.

  4. Perhaps we need to consider the underlying motive here. This is not a employee grievance case. Rather, it’s intended to write another chapter for Expelled.

    The Discoveroids typically frame their tactics in “win-win” terms. Even when they lose, they win in terms of political points. By making this into a bench trial, the Discoveroids can lay the blame solidly at the feet of Judge Hiroshige, much as they did with Judge Jones in Kitzmiller v. Dover. This plays to their target audience.

    A jury trial OTOH denies this opportunity for blame. Blaming juries for bad outcomes is less inviting than simply blaming the judge.

    It looks like several of the motions remain in limbo, for unknown reasons. I get the impression that several of Becker’s motions were filed a bit late by the court’s expectations. Perhaps Becker decided that playing ball with the judge, through a bench trial, was better for favorably impressing the court.

    IANAL on all of this.

  5. I’m also a little puzzled by the choice to forgo a jury trial. My (probably uninformed) guess is that Becker/Coppedge plan to use a pretty subtle legal argument of some sort and didn’t figure they could get it across to a lay jury.

  6. RBH, that’s a distinct possibility. We know that Coppedge thinks that:

    * ID is not “religious”
    * JPL thinks that ID IS “religious”
    * he was adversely discriminated, specifically due to his views on ID
    * therefore, JPL practiced illegal religious discrimination.

    I overviewed that to my wife. She raised an eyebrow in confusion.

  7. The weird thing about the decision to go for a bench trial is that it was made very late as far as I can tell. E.g. there were “Proposed Instructions to the Jury” etc. filed in the documents listed in NCSE’s archive.

    Trials are often won and lost with the pretrial motions and in limine thingies — how do we find out what the rulings are? Or do we hear tomorrow?

    PS IANAL also.

  8. I will enjoy reading the court transcript, if it becomes available, especially the part where the judge becomes exasperated with Becker. Can you imagine the cross exam of Coppedge?

    I also look forward to Coppedge explaining that his “demotion” involved no loss in grade nor pay, in other words, he wasn’t demoted any more than a person who headed the Christmas Party committee in 2010 was a committee member in 2011.

    Recall that Coppedge’s original lawsuit was about his fake demotion from “team leader” and his well-earned HR reprimand, subsequently rescinded. He’s taking up court time because his feelings were hurt. Too bad he didn’t draw Judge Judy! That would have been great!

  9. RBH says: “I’m also a little puzzled by the choice to forgo a jury trial.”

    From what I read of Becker when this case started, he’s mainly been a workers’ comp lawyer, and that stuff doesn’t involve jury trials. He’s also done some personal injury work, but most such cases get settled, and those that need to be tried are referred to trial specialists. So it’s possible that prior to getting involved with this creationism stuff, Becker has had little or no trial experience. The lawyers for Caltech, on the other hand, seem to have a depth of talent. So maybe Becker figured out he’s better off with the judge making the decisions. I donno. I always thought the jury trial aspect of this case was the best thing Coppedge had going for him, because the risk of what a jury might do makes the case worth settling. But then, since Caltech wouldn’t settle, maybe the prospect of a jury trial was more daunting for Becker than for Caltech. It’ll all come out, some day. Maybe.

  10. I wonder whether this not being a jury trial means that the arguments “in limine” which reference the influence on the jury are no longer relevant.

  11. Perhaps there’s a simpler reason. Coppedge takes the stand, and looks like an idiot in front of a jury. Would anybody in the jury truly bother with the rest of the case?

  12. Ceteris Paribus

    SC says: “I always thought the jury trial aspect of this case was the best thing Coppedge had going for him, because the risk of what a jury might do makes the case worth settling.”

    But look at the opening line in the Introduction of the defendant’s trial brief: “This is a case about an employee who had no self-awareness. http://ncse.com/webfm_send/1746 (pdf page 6). In other words, Coppedge is a prototypical computer geek, who spent a lot of time in the basement in his growing up years.

    So a jury trial may be a great strategy for a widowed 20-something trophy wife whose fat, balding, 50-something deceased husband is found submerged in the jacuzi, decorated with several elegantly placed 10mm entrance wounds. Her attorneys would well advise their client to come to court dressed in a black veil and coordinated mini-skirt that the jury can appreciate.

    But a jury trial where Coppedge himself would have to win the sympathy of the jurors? Better to let the judge decide the case solely on the legal questions.

  13. Tomato Addict

    Thanks to Ceteris Paribus I now have the image of David Coppedge taking the stand dressed in a black veil and coordinated mini-skirt stuck in my head. This trial just got a whole lot funnier.

  14. Very interesting factoid about the bench trial. Regardless of why, I think its a good thing Coppedge won’t get to give his dog and pony show to a jury.

    When did the case’s judge get selected? Could this have anything to do with a new-ish judge selection that is more favorable to Coppedge? Or was the judge selected long before his side put in jury instructions etc. (which would blow this idea out of the water)?

  15. One foregoes a jury trial because one’s client will not play well in front of a jury. It is that simple. Judges have typically seen it all. They filter through the bumbling testimony, or poor performance and focus on the actual facts. Juries tend to be swayed by appearance and production.

    After reviewing the trial brief of JPL (don’t forget, this is the BEST JPL will put forward—it is not a neutral document), and other Exhibits, Becker probably came to the conclusion his own client would not be liked by a jury.

    Frankly, the “list” would play so terribly, I wonder what the heck the Plaintiff was thinking in highlighting it.

    For shameless self-promotion, I fairly predicted the positions, and why it would not be wise to have a jury trial, almost two (2) years ago here:

    http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/2010/04/duck-talks.html

  16. eric asks: “When did the case’s judge get selected?”

    In most states it’s a random selection done when the case is filed, and the judge gets a list of his newly-assigned cases. I vaguely recall that the original judge may have recused himself, probably because of a conflict (either his or his old firm’s) with Caltech. The current judge has been on the case most of the time. At least that’s my impression, without going back to check.

  17. Ceteris Paribus says: “But a jury trial where Coppedge himself would have to win the sympathy of the jurors?”

    I’ve heard of trial lawyers running mock-trials in front of test juries, sort of like ad agencies testing their clients’ commercials. It’s probably expensive to do, but there’s a lot of money backing creationism. Maybe they figured out that way that Coppedge wasn’t a good witness.

  18. West whine: “There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin…”

    Can we ever control that viral meme? The best we can do is never, ever let it go unchallenged, and even that may not be enough given the lack of time or interest among the general public.

    The fact is that the only ones declaring war on the “dissenters” are the dissenters themselves. Thay have been given every opportunity to develp their own theories, and they always refuse. Unlike their dead-serious playing of the Hitler card (the last resort of the defeated) this is meant only an analogy, but their chutzpah-drenched tantrums are not unlike those of the child who kills he parents then whines about being an orphan.

  19. Frank J says: “Can we ever control that viral meme?”

    We can call it what it is — the new NAACP: The National Association for the Advancement of Creationist Pinheads.

  20. “Scientist fired for beliefs?”

    This is the teaser on Yahoo! for an article from AP about the Coppedge trial. The article itself (including the headline) does not make the claim that Coppedge was a scientist.

  21. Curmudeon: “We can call it what it is — the new NAACP.”

    Does the old NAACP demand affirmative action as relentlessly as the new one does?

  22. “It’s part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we’ve seen that for several years,” said John West.

    Right, everyone who does what Coppedge does for a living, IT systems admin, knows if you dissent from Darwin you’ll loose your job. Because that’s what IT sys admin is all about, Darwin and evolution. Where’s my eye-roll emoticon.

  23. “I wonder whether this not being a jury trial means that the arguments “in limine” which reference the influence on the jury are no longer relevant.”

    They are less relevant in a bench trial. If you violate a motion in limine in a jury trial, you can get a mistrial and have to start over again. That’s what happened in Roger Clemens’ perjury trial. In a bench trial, it is generally assumed the judge can ignore the improperly submitted evidence and can continue with the case. The judge, however, would be peeved, to say the least, if he thought it was done deliberately.

  24. We can’t figure out, however, why Coppedge decided to waive the jury trial.

    As others have noted, if they suspect they will likely lose it is easier to paint a single judge as an activist evil Darwinist judge — as they did with Judge Jones — than it is to paint an entire jury as evil Darwinists.

    The only other possible reasons I can think of are that the judge has a record of making rulings favorable to plaintiffs in employee termination cases and/or they think he may be sympathetic to ID.

  25. I keep seeing the same news stories appearing everywhere, repeating the same garbage. Coppedge was a NASA scientist. He’s suing NASA. He was lead specialist on the Cassini mission to Saturn. He was fired for his beliefs. The trial is about intelligent design.

  26. SC said:

    I keep seeing the same news stories appearing everywhere

    I said before that the JPL was keeping mum, while Coppedge, the DI and the ADF were spewing crap everywhere. That’s not the case. The WaPo article states:

    In an emailed statement, JPL dismissed Coppedge’s claims.

    So, the JPL is trying to get the truth of the matter known. I’m guessing that, since they lack a propaganda machine such as the DI or the ADF, they’re going to lose the PR battle at the beginning.

  27. Why did Coppedge decide to waive the jury trial? I checked through the comments on the Yahoo posting of the AP article you cite, and, pleasant surprise, comments were going 4 or more to 1 against Coppedge despite the DISCOTUTE spin. The reason for this seems to be that most people have gotten their fill at one time or another from pushy, never-say-quit evangelicals. We postulate that the Coppedge team realized that it would be difficult to find jurors who did not see Coppedge as a Jehovah’s Witness making a pest of himself around the office. Also, when the creationists lose, it will be easier to paint the judge as a Darwinian activist than to denigrate a jury of common folk.

  28. will fraser

    Its likely in my opinion that the plaintiffs scientific fraud displays were rejected by the judge and that not being able to defraud a gullible jury they
    will instead claim activist judge was the reason they lost, and they will lose.
    The Dishonesty Institute is amazing. How can someone who cliams they are Christian be so incredibly deceitful. Its sad.
    WIll

  29. Coppedge is (was?) on LinkedIn. A Google cached profile lists him with a BS in secondary education from Bob Jones University (no date but I’m going to guess mid-70′s based on his age) and a BS in physics (concentration astrophysics) 1990-1995 from California State University-Northridge. Ironic and speculative, but I bet he got continuing educational assistance from JPL or Caltech.

    He lists “Science Reporter” and “Expedition Leader” as special skills, a direct reference to his creationist website and the tours he gives through Creation Safaris. He also lists himself as president of the Master Plan Association which is the shell organization around Creation Safaris. I believe MPA was created by Coppedge’s father, an evangelical minister, as some sort of ministry.

    Not surprisingly, he has no contacts in his LinkedIn network. I’m sure it’s not boasting but here’s what Coppedge wrote about himself in his profile.

    Led a squadron of system administrators, contributing to successful launch, cruise, and tour of Saturn celebrated around the world.

    Personally served Chief Operations Officer of Huygens Probe, supporting historic first landing on Saturn’s moon Titan.

    “Personally served?” I don’t even want to know! I’m surprised he didn’t list Squadron Leader as a special skill, too.

  30. I’ve been looking all day, but there’s no news about what’s actually happening at the trial. The judge should have been ruling on at least some of the pending motions in limine, in order to get some control over the scope of the trial. Maybe something will show up later this evening. So far it’s all been the same old stuff about how, because of prejudice against intelligent design, NASA (not Caltech) axed the “scientist” or “team leader” who led us to Saturn. Definitely not the press’ finest hour.

  31. @SC … So far it’s all been the same old stuff about how… NASA (not Caltech) axed the “scientist” or “team leader” who led us to Saturn. Definitely not the press’ finest hour.

    I’ve seen the bolded misinformation reported in several places including on AOL. I doubt AOL is sympathetic to ID. Score an early cheap point for the DI’s propaganda machine. But one that may be taken off the board after the facts are examined.

  32. It looks like they’re still arguing motions in limine, and now will not start until Tuesday: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/suit-nasa-specialist-axed-intelligent-design-15902624#.T16fHIEgdDs

  33. Here is Becker on the radio explaining the case:

    Blah blah blah.

    Radio link is at the top of the article.