Jury foreperson talks about reaching guilty verdict against ex-L.A. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas
A jury convicted ex-Los Angeles Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas last week of seven federal corruption charges, including bribery, conspiracy and honest services fraud. The foreperson of the jury, Kirsi Kilpelainen, talked to The Times about how the panel reached its split verdict — finding Ridley-Thomas guilty of seven out of the 19 counts. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Why talk to the media?
Everybody’s so invested in this and wondering what’s happened. If you don’t get any closure, I just feel like it’s even harder to process. Whatever I can do for the people that are mourning the verdict. Even though I firmly believe he was guilty — I feel bad for all of his supporters and his family and everybody that was thinking he was doing good things in politics, which I also believe he was doing good things in politics and helping underserved communities. If I were his supporters, I would want to know more about what happened.
How do you explain what you ultimately convicted him on to your friends and family?
Succinctly how I explain it is: He asked Marilyn Flynn to do something for him. And in exchange, he voted yes on a county contract that would get money coming into her school. My friends were more curious about the $100,000 — but it didn’t really come down to whether the donation was legal or illegal. It’s the fact that he routed it [through USC]. And they tried to make it look like it was just a donation to the university, but there was an email giving further instructions. And we knew that he was behind the routing of the $100,000.
Is it fair to say that the basis of the conviction is a relatively narrow part of the case? How did you arrive at that?
Yes – a small part of the timeline. We considered everything, but we had a couple of key things that we kept coming back to. In reviewing the entire case, everybody right off the bat was like, well, this seems fishy. This seems dishonest. This seems like he’s not being transparent — he might be breaking policies. But did he do something that was illegal according to the instructions we were given? And can we prove it beyond a reasonable doubt?
To be clear, you viewed the moving of $100,000 from Mark Ridley-Thomas’ political campaign, through USC, then to his son’s nonprofit, as the bribe — and not the $100,000 sum in itself?
Yes, the funneling.
Because the public-facing appearance and the private-facing appearance of the transaction diverged?
It was the $100,000 moving through USC combined with the email — where he tells the USC dean to “act with dispatch” and send the money out — which differed from what the official statement was about the donation. It was also the exchange for the vote — it’s not just the $100,000 donation — it is [Ridley-Thomas and the USC dean] doing something for each other.
And by “exchange,” you mean?
The instructions stated that we didn’t have to find that they had any express or specific agreement but an understanding. We used the timeline to help establish there was an understanding between them.
Did anyone have a hard time grasping that concept? That it wasn’t the money itself but the movement of it?
No. I think some of Mark Ridley-Thomas’ friends and family that were asking me questions after had a hard time comprehending, but not the jurors.
It sounds like pretty early on, you had ruled out the admission and scholarship that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas received, and it really came down to the $100,000 and the professorship. Is that accurate?
With the professorship — we were always a little bit mixed. We could see it both ways. What I think kind of finally made everybody rethink that was part of the bribe was that there was just too much phone communication, and we didn’t know what happened. The government did try to make it seem like, ‘Two minutes later he called Marilyn Flynn about this’ — but we couldn’t be sure beyond a reasonable doubt. They could have been talking about something else — we didn’t know. But with the $100,000, everybody was pretty unanimous right from the beginning.
When you went into the jury room, how did you begin?
We read the full jury instructions together, even though the judge had read it, but we read through them together. The conspiracy charge was first in the packet. I was reading it out loud to everybody. And they were following along. We moved on to the next one, which was bribery, and just started talking. We were really careful to always just read the instructions.
Once we got to where it says the government has to prove the following elements: One, two, three, four — we would take preliminary votes on [the required criteria] or discuss, you know, the ones that the court agreed were already satisfied. And mark those off. Pretty fast into discussing the bribery charge, we knew we would have to re-create the timeline.
How did you go about making a timeline?
We had somebody writing on the board. There’s a couple of big whiteboards in the jury room. That turned into reading all the evidence together, building our own timeline, with every email or phone record that we had. We just wanted to be sure that it fairly represented both sides. Things kept getting added as we would read through the emails. If anybody said they thought it was important, we would just add it. If anybody had a question, we would ask it [to the judge].
That was probably the first time you were able to see the emails in person, right?
We were all taking notes during trial. I had written emails, word for word, thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I think that’s gonna come into play.’ And we had no idea that they would wheel in the cart with all those files and evidence.
There was a lot of testimony about a July 2017 letter: a confidential message that Dean Marilyn Flynn had written to Ridley-Thomas, then hand-delivered to his office. Did you view it as how the government had framed it — as the blueprint of the conspiracy? How did it factor into your deliberations?
We talked about it a lot. But most of the jury thought that the USC admission and the scholarship weren’t part of the bribe or the scheme. We read the whole thing. We considered it. It was obviously on the timeline, surrounded by a bunch of other events that were in evidence, but we just kept coming back to: is it illegal? Maybe that’s not something that they wouldn’t normally hand-deliver. But that doesn’t mean that anything in the letter or anything to do with the process was illegal. We still wanted to find evidence of them actually taking action on what was in the letter.
You mentioned that a lot of people on the jury didn’t view the admission and the scholarship as necessarily part of the overall conspiracy.
And that was because, Sebastian was qualified for those, or was it just that it seemed consistent with how USC operated?
We just decided that USC had some kind of VIP program, and how were we to know that Sebastian wasn’t a part of that.
How did sexual harassment allegations against Sebastian and his medical issues come into the analysis? There were two radically different narratives being put forth. The government is saying the sexual harassment investigation prompted his resignation, and he claimed he was sick as part of his and his father’s cover story. The defense is saying he was actually sick, and that’s why he had to resign. How did you make sense of that?
We obviously discussed that. It was on the timeline. But we kind of all decided that it didn’t really matter why he resigned; what mattered was, what was his father’s involvement?
Were there ever any disagreements? And if there were, how did you handle them?
Yes, of course, there were disagreements. I wouldn’t ever say there was any disagreement where people were heated or upset — we just weren’t agreeing. I just don’t want disagreement to come up with a negative connotation. We weren’t yelling or upset. Most of the time, if there was a disagreement, we would come back to that.
We weren’t allowed to talk about the case, obviously, during court proceedings. So we didn’t really talk. Even on the first day, we didn’t know each other’s names. We folded a piece of paper in half and made a little tent so that everybody could address each other with our names because we didn’t have any idea. That was really the first day that we had to start to learn to communicate with each other.
One of the jurors had a service dog with her in court. What was the dog’s name? What was it like having the dog in the jury room?
His name was Homer. He was really well-behaved. A couple people were saying, Oh, it makes me miss my dog. He just lay in the corner under the whiteboard when we were in there.
A lot of the defense took issue with the FBI agent and his statements about which documents he reviewed and a misstatement about the sexual harassment investigation into Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. What did you make of that?
We used elements of the timeline that the FBI agent was questioned on to build our timeline, but we made sure that it was backed up by the evidence and the phone logs. Most of everything he was testifying on were documents — and we had the documents.
After you finished the timeline, what happened next?
Making the timeline was ongoing. We were still adding things until the last day. But once we had the bulk of it done, we were working on the bribery charge.
How did you evaluate the bribery charge?
We were discussing bribery related to each of the events: the admission, the scholarship, the professorship and the $100,000 donation — and discussing each word and just being really careful about dissecting the sentences [in the jury instructions] because we don’t do this all the time. We were really being conscious of when a sentence said, “this and this had to be true.” And sometimes it was “this or this.”
We would read through one of the numbers [of the elements required to prove bribery] and look at the evidence and timeline, take a preliminary vote of who thought yes, maybe or no. And then we would just ask to hear from each other. If there were many no’s, and one yes, we would say “Oh, can we hear why you think yes?” We never came to any exact conclusions or opened the verdict folder until the very last day, when everyone was sure they understood what they were voting on. We discussed the bribery count for a long time — probably two full days. There was a definition of a word on the next page — it said that the defendant had to act corruptly.
Note: The jury instruction said: “An act is done ‘corruptly’ if it is performed voluntarily, deliberately, and dishonestly, for the purpose of either accomplishing an unlawful end or result or of accomplishing some otherwise lawful end or lawful result by an unlawful method or means.”
We sent a note to ask the judge if unlawful meant illegal. I know sometimes unlawful equals illegal, but I know sometimes it doesn’t equal illegal, it means that there’s not a law saying that is illegal. And so we wanted to clarify that from the court’s perspective, did that mean something illegal?
The confusion was that it added something else illegal to the charge besides bribery. If he committed bribery, that’s illegal/unlawful. But there was this extra paragraph where it seemed there had to be bribery plus something else for it to be illegal. So we moved onto the honest services fraud charges, and when we had guilty verdicts on five of those, we knew that was something unlawful that satisfied the paragraph that said there had to be unlawful means.
So it wasn’t that you were confused.
The reason I don’t want to say we were confused is because we didn’t know any different. The reason I don’t like the word confused is that a lot of the reports being written were trying to say, “Oh, yeah, the poor jury was confused on their verdict.” And no, we were not. We were very sure by the end of what our verdict was. They were trying to make it seem like we were confused about the whole process, and we were not. We were very sure of what we decided, and which counts of honest services wire fraud we decided to say guilty and not guilty.
It seems like people are using “confused” out of context to try to invalidate what the jury did.
That’s the part I don’t like. We were all very unanimous by the end.
When the verdict was read, you were all generally sitting toward the defendant and his lawyers. How was that?
When we sent out the note that said we had a unanimous verdict, we didn’t know how long it would take everybody to gather [in the courtroom]. Would we have five minutes? An hour? So we were all like, Who do we look at? What do we do? This is much more uncomfortable than the other times we’ve walked into the courtroom. I think most jurors decided to turn their chairs toward the judge and just avoid looking.
How did you feel afterward?
After we were done deliberating, we hadn’t filled out the verdict folder but we had our final votes on everything. We knew that there was some guilty. We didn’t tell them that we were finished, and we asked to go outside for 15 minutes. It didn’t feel good — I think the weight of it all feels horrible. Even though we’re very sure of the decisions, it still like does not make you feel good to actually do that.
On the last day, we were just going to get some fresh air and make sure that everybody was very confident and that nobody had anything that they wanted to change about the whole case before we came back in and filled out the verdict folder. Some people were saying that they felt sick to their stomach. They couldn’t catch a full breath. When you actually finalize the vote — we’re asked not to consider what’s going to happen to him, and we didn’t. But I think we had a hard time as a group processing that we were to just fill this out. And that’s it.
So that’s why we decided to go outside and just take a little break from what we had been doing. Because all of a sudden, it was over. And there was no more discussion of maybe he didn’t do it. He did.
It doesn’t feel great. I think people just assume like, oh, yeah, guilty, you know, what a big win for fighting corruption. But even if that’s the case, it’s not fun. Somebody’s guilty.
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