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Bell jury can't change guilty verdicts, judge and experts say

Photo: George Cole, center, was one of five former Bell City Council members were found guilty Wednesday. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

Despite evidence that some Bell jurors might be having misgivings about the guilty verdicts in the Bell corruption trial, the judge and legal experts said the panel can't change its mind.

In a note delivered Thursday morning, one anonymous juror said, "It is better to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt to give a verdict of guilty than send someone innocent to prosecution."

But on Wednesday -- after receiving a similar juror note -- Judge Kathleen Kennedy said, "That's done, we're not going to reopen verdicts that have been reached."

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

Legal experts said the behavior is 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. "What is going on now is nothing short of bizarre. To go back and ask to reexamine verdicts doesn't happen."

However, as puzzling as the behavior might be, experts said it was extremely unlikely the jury would be allowed to go back on their decision.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

Gerald F. Uelmen, a Santa Clara University School of Law criminal law professor who was part of the O.J. Simpson defense "dream team," said the "verdict is final once returned and rendered."

"One juror changing their mind afterward doesn't make any difference because the verdict was returned," he said.

Uelmen, who was also a lawyer in the Pentagon Papers case, said defense attorneys could try to pursue an inquiry into the jury deliberations.

TIMELINE: 'Corruption on steroids'

"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."

Laurie Levenson, a former prosecutor and Loyola Law School professor, said defense attorneys may believe it is grounds for an appeal. But if there is no jury misconduct, "second thoughts just aren't enough to challenge the verdicts.

"Second thoughts aren't legal grounds to overturn a verdict once a verdict is rendered," she said. "That is kind of it."

DOCUMENT: Read the charges

To overturn the verdicts, she said, the council members would need to show actual misconduct in the jury room, such as use of outside information.

"Many jurors have second thoughts after a verdict, but don't usually express them," she added.

Kennedy ordered the jury back to into court Thursday to discuss their deadlock on 42 charges against the so-called Bell 6, former City Council members accused of stealing public money through bloated salaries.

"Your honor, after you asked us yesterday to go back into the deliberation room, I had time to think until now," the note began.

"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 on the Solid Waste Authority," the juror continued. "It is better to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt to give a verdict of guilty than send someone innocent to prosecution. If possible, I request to remain anonymous."

Ex-Mayor Oscar Hernandez, and ex-council members George Cole, Victor Bello, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were convicted on multiple felony counts related to money they received for sitting on the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority. But they were acquitted on charges related to their pay from the Public Finance Authority.

The sixth defendant, former Councilman Luis Artiga, was acquitted of all the charges he faced.

But hours after the verdicts were read Wednesday, the jurors sent five notes to the judge, raising questions about the deliberations. 

It was not clear if Thursday's note was from a different juror than No. 7, who sent a similar note on Wednesday. In Thursday's note, the juror requested more information or evidence on Edward Lee, a former city attorney for Bell.

Defense attorney Alex Kessel asked to find out who the juror was and demanded further inquiry. 

"Are we dealing with multiple jurors who believe there is possible pressure going on?" he asked. 

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

Judge Kennedy denied the request.

Later, Kessel raised the issue again and brought up the juror who after less than one week of deliberations was dismissed for misconduct. Kessel said she too had mentioned pressure and coercion.

The defense attorneys asked if the bailiff could find out out and have the judge seal the identification of that juror. In the end, Kennedy said she would find out herself.

ALSO:

Bell trial: Juror wants to reconsider guilty verdicts, note says

Bell trial: Jury due back in court to discuss undecided charges

Bell: Appellate court rules city can seek restitution for salaries

— Richard Winton and Kate Mather

Photo: George Cole, center, was one of five former Bell City Council members found guilty Wednesday. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

 
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