Bell trial: After mistrial, next steps for attorneys unclear
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A day after a judge declared a mistrial on the remaining counts in the Bell corruption trial, saying ‘all hell had broken loose’ with a deeply divided jury, it remained unclear what, if any, steps attorneys might take next.
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 on the remaining charges.
Attorneys representing two of the ex-Bell City Council members implied jury misconduct might have occurred.
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.’
Gerald F. Uelmen, a Santa Clara University School of Law criminal law professor, said the jury problems could help the defense in a challenge but that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy was correct in refusing to set aside Wednesday’s 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.’
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 government boards 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 some charges and were unable to reach a verdict on the remaining charges. Luis Artiga, a pastor, was exonerated on all counts.
But the jury was unable to reach a verdict on nearly half the counts and began deliberations on the remaining charges Thursday morning.
The drama only continued, as one juror asked Kennedy to reconsider the guilty verdicts reached the day before.
The 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 Wednesday, though it was unclear whether that came from the same juror.
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.’
At one point, a juror inquired about Bell’s former city attorney, Edward Lee, who was not charged in the sweeping corruption probe and didn’t testify during the trial. The juror wrote to Kennedy that knowing more about Lee would help the panel in deliberations and be ‘certain beyond a reasonable doubt.’
The jurors asked to be escorted out of the courthouse by sheriff’s deputies without speaking to reporters.
But in an interview later with The Times, one juror said dissension on the jury worsened considerably in the last week.
‘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.
The woman said it was time to end deliberations.
‘It was very, very tense, and I believe that if we hadn’t ended when we did it probably could have been a lot worse,’ she said. ‘I believe that [the defendants] were good people but that wasn’t what we were there to decide, I was doing my best to base everything on the evidence and the facts of the case.’
Even defense attorneys were stunned by the turn of events in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
‘The verdicts came out and then it got weird,’ said Stanley L. Friedman, who represents one of the accused former city leaders.
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.’
— Corina Knoll, Richard Winton and Ruben Vives