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Image plays role in criminal-justice system

Lawyers Charles B. Corces and Manuel Machin were tense as they walked together from the county courthouse annex in January 1991. They were headed to Machin's car to pick up $35,000 Corces is accused of soliciting as a bribe for a prosecutor. The payoff was minutes away.

"As we left, it was starting to sprinkle," Machin recalled in a deposition released Monday. "And I asked Mr. Corces why he was wearing a trench coat; it wasn't a very cold day.

"And he indicated that _ these words: "I'm wearing a trench coat because if something goes wrong, I want to look like John Gotti on the 6 o'clock news.' "

Gotti is the reputed head of the Gambino crime family in New York.

The incident is just one of dozens that reflect how image and appearances play a role in the well-greased inner workings of criminal justice. They are contained in more than 1,200 pages of sworn testimony by Machin, who cooperated with officials investigating allegations of corruption in the Hillsborough County court system.

Machin tells of hand signals, code words and courtroom shorthand between prosecutors and judges. He says he didn't believe half of it: Lots of it could just be "rainmaking," a lawyer's effort to create his own aura of connections in hopes of attracting clients.

True or not, Corces and Machin's style of practice is much more colorful than the standard legalese.

When discussing how to refer to the payoff, they considered a variety of verbal camouflage.

"The real-estate deal is off," meant the plea bargain for $35,000 was canceled.

"Tell Chuck that I got this Irish setter for $350. He's 12 years old, but he hunts like a son-of-a-bitch," meant $35,000 in exchange for a 12-year sentence.

On the courthouse steps, it came out another way: "We're going to play golf Wednesday. Don't forget to bring 12 golf balls," shorthand again for the 12-year sentence.

When Machin said his client was uncomfortable giving Corces the money the night before the court hearing, Corces became angry.

"He (the client) can put it under his bed when he's doing 20 years and count it every f---ing day, okay?" Corces is said to have replied.

According to Machin, Corces would never say someone was paid off, only pretend to count off bills and stuff the imaginary cash in a pocket.

The amount depended on how low a sentence a client could afford. Recounting the terms of their deal, Machin said, "So it was 15 (years) and $10,000 in trust; 12 (years) and twenty in trust; 10 (years) and $30,000 in trust."