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Bell corruption trial ended with jury intimidation, attorneys say

March 21, 2013 |  7:15 pm

Five former Bell City Council members were found guilty Wednesday of stealing public money by paying themselves extraordinary salaries in one of Los Angeles County's poorest cities. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

Jury deliberations in the Bell corruption scandal were "very, very tense," according to a juror who described a day of rancor that the judge in the case said seemed to her like “all hell has broken loose.”

 Judge Kathleen Kennedy declared a mistrial at the end of a bizarre day in which one juror asked to reconsider the guilty verdicts reached Wednesday. Then, an anonymous juror passed a note to Kennedy urging her to “remind the jury to remain respectful and not to make false accusations and insults to one another.”

Attorneys for the defendants said the jury deliberations leave many questions.

George Cole’s attorney, Ronald Kaye, said the jury’s behavior suggested “coercion and intimidation” that throws the guilty verdicts into question.

Attorney Shepard Kopp, who represented Teresa Jacobo, said the jury’s conduct is “tremendous legal grounds for motion for a new trial.”

The juror who spoke to The Times described an increasingly divided jury.

“We had some jurors who just kind of didn’t care what the instructions were and what the judge said and that was just that,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous and said she was in favor of guilt.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

“I believe that [the defendants] were good people but that wasn’t what we were there to decide," she said. "I was doing my best to base everything on the evidence and the facts of the case.”

The jurors asked to be escorted out of the courthouse by security officers and declined to speak about the case.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

Jurors spent 17 days behind closed doors before convicting Cole, Jacobo, Victor Bello, Oscar Hernandez and George Mirabal of driving up their salaries by serving on an authority that prosecutors said rarely met and, in one case, may have been invented as a device to push their paychecks even higher.

The panel of seven women and five men acquitted the defendants on an equal number of charges and was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining charges. Luis Artiga, a pastor, was exonerated on all counts.

There were indications early on that the jury was fractured. A few days into deliberations, one juror was removed for alleged misconduct. In the end, deliberations took nearly as long as the trial itself.

Legal experts say the jury’s behavior was extremely unusual.

“I have never heard of anything like this in my 40 years of law,” said Robert Sheahen, a veteran Los Angeles criminal defense attorney. “To go back and ask to reexamine verdicts doesn't happen.”

Gerald F. Uelmen, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said the jury problems could help the defense in an appeal but said Kennedy was correct in refusing to set aside the Wednesday verdicts.

“They will be looking to see if there was any coercion and will probably file motions for a new trial,” he said. “But the bottom line is the jury reached its decision.”



Prosecutors declined to comment because of the upcoming trial of Robert Rizzo, the former city administrator alleged to be the mastermind of the corruption. But an official said no decision has been made about retrying the defendants for remaining charges.


Prosecutors charged the officials with misappropriating public funds by exceeding pay limits established in state law and the city's own charter. The prosecution had argued that the six defendants overpaid themselves by sitting on city boards and authorities that did little work and that council members in a city the size of Bell can legally earn an annual salary of only $8,076.

The defendants drew pay for serving on four boards, boosting their salaries to up to $100,000 a year, among the highest in the state for part-time council members. Defense attorneys maintained that their clients labored tirelessly for the community on nights and weekends and could receive additional compensation for work outside meetings. They also placed the blame for the scandal squarely on Rizzo, saying he manipulated the unsuspecting council members. Rizzo, who earned nearly $800,000 a year, and his deputy, Angela Spaccia, go on trial later this year.

After reaching verdicts on some counts Wednesday, the jury began deliberations on the remaining charges Thursday.

Four jurors had indicated that they believed the remaining counts could be decided with more direction from the court.

An anonymous juror sent a note to Kennedy saying: “I have been debating in my own mind that due to the pressure and stress of the deliberation process the jury may have given an improper verdict of guilty.”

Kennedy received a similar note from a juror on Wednesday, though it was unclear whether that came from the same juror.

Defense attorneys asked to find out who wrote the most recent note and demanded further inquiry. Kennedy denied the attorneys’ request.

There were indications early on of heated jury deliberations.

The panel got the case Feb. 22. A few days later, one juror tearfully complained that the others were picking on her. She later told Kennedy she had gone online “looking to see at what point can I get the harassment to stop. … How long do I have to stay in there and deliberate with them when I have made my decision.”

Kennedy dimissed her from the jury for alleged misconduct.

At one point, the jurors told Kennedy they were deadlocked. The judge assigned an alternate juror to the case and asked them to begin deliberations from scratch. The jury later had multiple questions about the law and made requests for read-back of testimony. It appeared they were grappling with the task of determining whether the salaries, while excessive, were legal. They also had questions about jury instructions.

Last week, the jury requested a read-back of testimony regarding one defendant’s pay as well as the city clerk’s testimony about slipping doctored contracts into a stack of papers to be signed by the mayor.

The end came Thursday afternoon after Kennedy received more notes from the jury.

“It seems to me all hell has broken loose,” she said. “I'm going to bring them out now.”

Once the jurors returned to the courtroom, she said: “I'm getting the sense that the lines of communication have broken down between each and every one of you. You've got to decide whether continuing to deliberate makes sense in terms of how you are functioning as a jury.”

After less than an hour of additional deliberations, the jury informed Kennedy they were hopelessly deadlocked.

The jury foreman said the panel was divided 9 to 3 for guilty on the remaining charges.

ALSO:

Bell trial: Judge’s note to jury a setback, defense says

Bell trial: Judge declares mistrial on 10 counts, jury dismissed

Defense attorneys should have polled jury after verdict, experts say

--Corina Knoll, Jeff Gottlieb, Ruben Vives, Richard Winton and Kate Mather

Photo: Bell defendants in court Wednesday as the verdicts are read. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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