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Mr. Coe's show is for the birds

Clearly, something was up. Warren Elly was mumbling about birds.

This was not what the years had taught me to expect from Elly, a reporter for Tampa's WTVT-Ch. 13. He can boil down the knottiest controversy to a 30-second summary, spit it out to the camera, dash to the next crisis and immediately start the crazy process again, all the while sounding like David Brinkley's grown-up son. But when Elly started mumbling about birds in the middle of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, I thought all the breathless, news-chasing years had gotten to him.

Then Elly explained. Birds was shorthand for satellites _ in this case the several poised to take a feed from the news conference that Christopher Wilson was about to hold. Every TV station in the state, the networks, CNN, Court TV might get the tape.

A picture formed in my mind, like a cloud against a blue sky: sea gulls, hummingbirds, hawks, every manner of squawking, flapping creature carrying the words of the heroic man at the heart of this racially charged case to the nation, indeed perhaps to Rio, Bangkok and God himself, if heaven is wired for cable.

And this was happening just 24 hours after a judge, who tried for days to pick a jury in Tampa, moved the case because there had been so much publicity.

Suddenly, Wilson appeared. State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III, who used to be a judge and still likes to be called Judge, waltzed in behind him.

Reporters asked questions. From the heart, Wilson answered, and Coe occasionally clowned.

He made jokes about fishing and baseball, sports Wilson loves, and allowed as to how he, himself, had once been a ballplayer. It was about this point that somebody should have taken Coe's temperature.

If he is concerned about holding this trial before unbiased jurors, why did he let this show go on? Does the answer explain why, at least as of a couple months ago, Coe didn't have a thing on his desk?

He did stop Wilson from discussing details of his ordeal, the very details a jury must rule on. But Coe went on to proclaim that officials of Tampa and Hillsborough County ought to give Wilson the keys to their communities, which would be nice, but Coe was also inflating Wilson's public image, giving a jury one more reason to be inclined to convict, and the defense one more reason to scream foul on appeal.

Some readers will say I'm a hypocrite for questioning the propriety of being handed a story I loved to write. You would be absolutely correct, except that I can't write a story that I don't get (it happens regularly), and nobody would have gotten this one if Coe hadn't handed it over like a steak on a plate.

And because doing it once isn't goofy enough, he did it twice.

First, to the stupefaction of reporters who had covered every courthouse hiccup involving Wilson, Coe permitted him to be interviewed by a TV anchorwoman from Channel 13, Leslie Spencer, who had hardly covered the story. Once they got over their shock, the beat reporters demanded a shot at Wilson, repeating the request they made for months. Presto, change-o, came the news conference.

It would interest only people with nothing better to do than hang around the courthouse, except it sheds light on the dark corners where Coe does his thinking, when he's thinking.

Many black people voted for Coe, and many wanted the trial to remain here. Putting Wilson on stage was a way to apologize for the change of venue. But why should Coe care what anybody thinks, months before the trial and before he finishes the more immediate task of helping ensure the case is tried properly in whatever city gets stuck with it?

Coe later said he put Wilson on stage to tell people to remain calm, as though riots were imminent. What riot? Did we miss something? Or is Coe hearing voices?

Wherever the trial lands, you can be sure the judge will have to spend extra time, in case enough hasn't been wasted, asking would-be jurors if they have seen the tape of Wilson and the white fellow next to him and what they think of the first man, and then the second.

I want to be there when they answer, especially the second question. I want to be there when Harry Lee Coe decides the case maybe should be tried in heaven, if it is wired for cable.

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