Strange end of Bell corruption trial may spur appeals

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There was trouble from the start for a jury deciding a corruption case against former city leaders in a Los Angeles suburb.

A tearful juror who claimed she was being harassed by other members was excused for having her daughter research juror coercion.

Notes from other jurors later asked to withdraw a guilty verdict and hinted at bad behavior among members before a judge declared a mistrial on about half of the counts of misappropriating public funds.

"It seems to me all hell has broken loose," Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told attorneys after receiving the final juror note.

Many details about the deliberations involving the Bell Six remained a mystery on Friday. Still, defense attorneys said they plan to challenge the convictions in the case based partly on what happened behind the closed doors.

"This was not, in our minds, a complete verdict," said attorney Sheppard Kopp, who represents ex-Bell Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo.

The potential misconduct is "tremendous legal grounds for motion for a new trial," Kopp said.

Legal observers believe defense attorneys will do everything they can to get the guilty verdicts tossed.

"You want to find out if there was some coercion, or maybe something improper was done," said Troy Slaten, a Beverly Hills-based criminal defense attorney who was not involved in the case. "These verdicts may not stand. It's a tremendous mess."

Jurors on Wednesday convicted the former mayor and four former Bell council members of stealing city funds by creating a bogus trash board to help pad their part-time salaries to nearly $100,000.

The panel of seven women and five men acquitted the defendants of some counts and were deadlocked 9-3 in favor of guilt on others.

One former official was acquitted of all charges.

The deliberations had dragged on for 19 days — almost as long as trial testimony — before the partial verdict was reached and Kennedy asked the jury to keep trying.

It wasn't long before an anonymous juror questioned whether the panel may have given an improper guilty verdict, citing the stress of the deliberations. The same juror wanted to hear from Bell's former city attorney — who didn't testify at the trial — to help "clarify reasonable doubt."

Slaten said it's "extremely unusual for a juror to come back and basically recant."

Another juror note on Thursday indicated deliberations had taken an ugly turn.

"Your honor, I respectfully ask if you could please remind the jury to remain respectful and to not make false accusations or insults to one another," it read.

No more details were provided, and jurors said they did not want to speak to the news media or attorneys. Prosecutors also declined comment.

Defense attorney Stanley Friedman, who represents former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez, believes jurors thought they would be dismissed on Wednesday after the verdicts were read.

"When that didn't happen, it created a lot of stress in the jury room," Friedman said.

He said the dynamics of any jury can be difficult. He recalled handling a civil case in which one panelist wouldn't speak to other jurors — only whistle. In another case, he said a juror had a mental illness that was never disclosed.

Friedman said the "weird" notes suggest jury misconduct and could open the door for a new trial.

A hearing is set for April 23 to determine whether the deadlocked counts will be retried.

The case involving the modest 2½-square-mile city of Bell has become a national symbol of political greed. The city has about 36,000 residents, with one in four people living below the poverty line.

Authorities said the corruption scheme was masterminded by former City Manager Robert Rizzo to enrich himself, the council members and other city officials.

Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, are scheduled to face trial later this year on similar charges.

As city manager, Rizzo had an annual compensation package of about $1.5 million. His salary alone was about $800,000 a year or twice that of President Obama. The six former City Council members on trial were each paid about $100,000 a year.

Despite the guilty verdicts, which could result in sentences of probation for the former council members, Friedman said he was pleased with the results.

"Two-and-a-half years ago, if people could have lynched my client, they would have," he said. "I would consider this a huge victory."

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