Bell trial ends in chaos
The Bell corruption trial came to a chaotic end Thursday as the judge declared a mistrial on the outstanding counts, saying “all hell has broken loose” with the deeply divided jury.
An exasperated Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy drew the case to a close after 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.” Kennedy refused to set aside the guilty verdicts.
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.
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.”
Jurors spent 17 days behind closed doors before convicting Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo 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.
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 Santa Clara University School of Law criminal law professor, said that the jury problems could help the defense in a challenge but that 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 on the remaining charges.
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 Jacobo, said the jury’s conduct is “tremendous legal grounds for motion for a new trial.”
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.
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 on Lee and on Rizzo, saying the city administrator 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 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 dismissed her for misconduct.
The judge replaced her with an alternate juror and told the panel 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 juror notes.
“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 half 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.
Times staff writers Jeff Gottlieb, Kate Mather, Abby Sewell and Samantha Schaefer contributed to this report.
The perils of parenting through a pandemic
What’s going on with school? What do kids need? Get 8 to 3, a newsletter dedicated to the questions that keep California families up at night.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.