LOS ANGELES – With jurors saying they were hopelessly deadlocked and tensions running high in the deliberation room, a mistrial was declared Thursday on remaining charges against five former Bell elected officials already convicted of misappropriating public funds by collecting exorbitant salaries.
The mistrial capped a final day of deliberations that included a series of jury notes that grew increasingly tense as the day wore on.
“It seems to me that all hell has broken loose in the jury deliberation room,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told attorneys after receiving a pair of notes from the seven-woman, five-man panel early this afternoon.
One of the missives indicated the jury was deadlocked on charges involving salaries the defendants received for serving on the city’s Surplus Property Authority, and also said a juror had sent a personal note that he shared with another juror but would not share with the remainder of the panel.
In the other note, a juror wrote to the judge, “I respectfully ask if you could please remind the jury to remain respectful and not to make false accusations (or) insults to one another.”
The judge summoned the jury into court and all 12 said further deliberations would not help to break the deadlock on the remaining charges against former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and ex-City Council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Bello.
The jury’s foreman told the judge that nine of the jurors favored conviction on the deadlocked counts, while three others were voting in favor of acquittal.
On Wednesday, Hernandez, Jacobo and Mirabal were each convicted of five counts of misappropriation of public funds and acquitted of five others. Cole was convicted of two counts and acquitted of two others, while Bello was convicted of four counts and acquitted of four others.
The panel completely exonerated former Councilman Luis Artiga of all 12 counts against him.
While excusing the jury Thursday, the judge noted that “apparently things got a little heated” among the panelists. She said she hopes the discord “isn’t the thing you take away from your jury service,” saying their efforts to reach verdicts were “commendable.”
Kennedy noted that the jurors’ identities would be kept confidential, saying the only way the information would be released is if there is some justification for it and that jurors could oppose the release of such information.
She said jurors had indicated that they did not want to speak to attorneys or the media about the lengthy case.
The judge set a sentencing date for April 23, when prosecutors will also discuss whether they plan to seek a retrial on the remaining counts. The ex- city officials are all free on bail.
Mirabal, who described the last two years as an “ordeal,” said he was “appreciative of the three jurors that felt we should be acquitted” of the remaining charges.
Some defense attorneys said they believe their clients could be sentenced to probation, rather than any time behind bars. They said they were hopeful the District Attorney’s Office would decide not to re-try the remaining counts.
Mirabal’s attorney, Alex Kessel, told reporters that prosecutors “already took one big bite out of the apple.”
Cole’s attorney, Ronald Kaye, noted that there is a new administration in the District Attorney’s Office, referring to District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s election to replace Steve Cooley, who was district attorney when the charges were filed about 2 1/2 years ago.
“We just hope that they won’t proceed any further,” Kaye told reporters.
The defense attorneys said they hope jurors will reach out to them so they can determine if any misconduct occurred during the panel’s deliberations.
Bello’s attorney, Leo Moriarty, said, “The guilt counts are not set in stone … The guilt counts are in doubt in our minds.”
Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller told jurors during the trial that the officials misappropriated public funds by collecting unlawful salaries for sitting on four city boards — the Community Housing Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Financing Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority — that rarely met.
Defense attorneys contended their clients were wrongly accused, arguing they worked diligently for the city and earned their salaries.
After the guilty verdicts were read Wednesday, the jury foreman said the panel was split 9-3 on remaining counts against the defendants, but four female jurors said they felt more instructions from the judge might help break the deadlock. Kennedy asked the panel to submit specific questions and sent jurors back into the deliberation room.
Several more notes followed, with jurors asking for more information and eventually asking today whether the judge intended to give them any more instructions beyond what they had already received.
By mid-afternoon, the panel sent the note indicating the deadlock.
Earlier today, one juror sent a note claiming the guilty verdicts may have been “improper” due to pressure during deliberations.
“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 wrote, referencing one of the boards the elected officials received salaries for. “Further information or evidence the court can provide on (former Bell City Attorney) Edward Lee may help clarify reasonable doubt on this matter.
“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,” the juror wrote.
Mirabal’s attorney said the juror’s reference to “pressure” raised the possibility of jury misconduct. But the judge said there is pressure in every jury deliberation and it was “not tantamount to misconduct.”
The judge denied Kessel’s request that she conduct an inquiry and identify the juror, but said later she would find out on her own which juror sent the note.
In one of the notes sent Wednesday, a juror wrote that if new information was provided in hopes of breaking the deadlock, it would not be fair as the case relates to charges involving the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, for which the defendants had already been convicted. The juror also said he was questioning himself on information that he felt wasn’t “presented properly,” writing that it “had me on a (doubt).”
The judge told attorneys she would only “entertain questions on which verdicts have not been reached.”
Kennedy decided today she would respond to one juror’s request for clarification on laws related to Bell’s Community Housing Authority by telling the panel that service on that board is governed by state law and board members can be paid for four meetings a month at $50 a meeting — over the objection of numerous defense attorneys.
The judge denied requests by Mirabal’s attorney to re-open closing arguments and by Cole’s attorney to re-open evidence.
The jury’s guilty verdicts involved payments made for the defendants’ work on the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, while the counts on which all of the defendants were acquitted involved the Public Financing Authority.
Jurors were deadlocked on charges involving payments for the defendants’ work on the Community Housing Authority and the Surplus Property Authority.
Hernandez, 65, Jacobo, 55, and Mirabal, 63, were each originally charged with 20 counts of misappropriating public funds between January 2006 and July 2010; Bello, 54, was charged with 16 counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2009; Artiga, 52, was charged with 12 counts of misappropriation between January 2008 and July 2010; and Cole, 63, was charged with eight counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2007.
Former City Manager Robert Rizzo, 59, who is accused of being the mastermind of the alleged corruption scheme, is awaiting trial separately, along with former assistant Angela Spaccia, 54, on corruption-related charges.
Jurors initially got the case Feb. 22, but a juror was replaced Feb. 28 – – with the judge ordering the panel to begin its deliberations anew — after an alternate juror replaced a panelist who acknowledged she had done research on the Internet and talked to her daughter about what she called “the abuse” she suffered from other jurors.
The reconstituted panel was in its 13th day of deliberations when it buzzed at about 10 a.m. Wednesday to notify the court that it had reached verdicts.