Bell trial: Jury due back in court to discuss undecided charges
A day after delivering mixed verdicts to six ex-Bell City Council members accused of stealing public money, jurors will return to court Thursday morning to address their continued deadlock on nearly half the counts the defendants faced.
The jury is due back in Judge Kathleen Kennedy's courtroom at 9 a.m., though it remains unclear if the panel will continue to deliberate on the undecided charges. Wednesday's verdicts came on the 18th day of deliberations.
Also unclear is if and how Kennedy or the attorneys involved will address last-minute questions submitted by the jury Wednesday. Hours after the verdicts were read, jurors submitted questions that raised questions about whether they were unanimous in their verdicts, ending the day on a chaotic note.
In a cryptic note, Juror No. 7 told Kennedy that he had misgivings about the deliberations, saying he "questioned myself on information that had me on a [doubt] of thing [sic] that were not presented properly."
Defense attorney Ron Kaye, who represents former Councilman George Cole, told the judge that the juror's note suggested he might have been persuaded to vote a certain way. But Kennedy rejected his request to talk to the juror.
“That's done, we're not going to reopen verdicts that have been reached,” Kennedy said.
In another note, Juror No. 10 said that she believes the jury is "getting away from your instructions" and possibly misunderstanding a law on "several levels." Defense attorney Stanley Friedman, who represents former mayor Oscar Hernandez, said the comments raised the possibility of jury misconduct.
Legal expert Dimitry Gorin, a criminal defense attorney, said the late-developments in the Bell trial and verdicts is out of the ordinary.
“Questions from the jury as a collective aren’t unusual, but individual questions are rare and what is happening here is highly unusual and unique,” Gorin said.
Gorin said Kennedy has a lot of discretion over what she chooses to discuss with jurors.
When Kennedy rejected a request by Kaye to question Juror No. 7, she noted that the defense attorneys had already waived the opportunity to poll the jurors one by one after the verdicts were read.
As a defense attorney, Gorin said he makes it a practice to always poll the jury because of the possibility that a juror might change their mind.
“It’s surprising they passed on that here,” Gorin said.
Gorin said the juror’s questions raise potential issues about the verdict.
“Any time a juror says the jury is getting away from instructions, I would be greatly concerned,” Gorin said. “The judge here seems to think they are talking about the undecided counts.”
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 only legally earn an annual salary of $8,076.
Ex-City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his assistant Angela Spaccia are also accused in the corruption scandal. They will stand trial later this year.
Five of the former council members — Hernandez, 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 jury did not return decisions on similar charges related to the Community Housing and Surplus Property authorities.
The final defendant, former Councilman Luis Artiga, was acquitted of all of the charges he faced. The pastor wept and looked heavenward as the "not guilty" counts were read.
The others were also emotional, some teary-eyed, as they left the courtroom with their families, unsure of their final fates.
It is also unclear whether the convicted council members will serve any jail time.
Legal expert Troy Slaten, a criminal defense attorney, said the council members are not required to be jailed. They could instead be put on probation and perform community service.
The jury did not reach a decision on the special allegations that the defendants took property exceeding $65,000 and $100,000.
Oscar Hernandez's attorney Stanley Friedman said the verdicts so far give the defendants a chance at probation. If they are convicted of the special allegations, it would be harder for a judge to give them probation, Friedman said.
"So we are hoping for probation but we will obviously appeal," Friedman said.
— Richard Winton, Corina Knoll, Ruben Vives and Kate Mather