After hearing 12 days of testimony and deliberating for over 12 hours, a 12-person jury returned four handwritten notes to Judge Alvin Thompson—but no verdict. That kept lawyers watching old SNL episodes, and reading the tea leaves.
The jury, impaneled in a second-floor jury room in U.S. District Court in Hartford, is charged with deciding the fate of five people the government says took part in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud conspiracy.
The scam allegedly bilked government and private lenders of millions of dollars and left a trail of blighted homes in New Haven and surrounding towns. Prosecutors say a ring of 15 people participated in the scheme. Most have pleaded guilty.
The remaining defendants include attorney David Avigdor, who’s also New Haven’s longest-serving pulpit rabbi, and Morris Olmer, a former New Haven alderman and state representative.
For the past two days, those two men, along with three other defendants, have haunted the halls of the Abraham Ribicoff federal building, marking time as they await a decision from the jury.
Wednesday came and went without a verdict. But just before the end of the day, jurors sent out a note that suggests the government has failed to convince all of them of the defendants’ guilt.
At least that’s the way several defense attorneys interpreted the handwritten message, which read, “What should we do if we can’t come to a unanimous decision on one or more of the counts?”
Judge Thompson declined to answer the jury’s question directly. Instead, he simply told jurors to go home, get some rest, and come back and work on it more on Monday. (The judge will be away Thursday and Friday.)
Notes 1 & 2
Wednesday afternoon’s was the fourth note to emerge from the jury room since the jury’s four men and eight women began their deliberations Tuesday morning.
The first two notes arrived in rapid succession Tuesday afternoon—and provided fodder for the attorneys playing the waiting game.
The first note came out at 2:52 p.m. It was a request to review the testimony of Kenneth Perkins, the man who cooperated with the feds and wore a wire to unravel the conspiracy. The jurors wanted to hear his testimony about a meeting between he, Asmar, Luis Rivera (an alleged recruiter of “straw buyers”), Syed Babar (the alleged mastermind), and an attorney named Novak.
“I think this clearly deals with Marshall,” said Frank Riccio, Jr. He represents Marshall Asmar, the landlord accused of taking part in the conspiracy to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in property sales. Riccio said he focused on the meeting in his closing statement as the only contact his client had with the other alleged conspirators. “The key question is, does a single meeting inject him into any of this?”
As lawyers waited in the courtroom for Judge Thompson to appear, a second note arrived. It came at 3:17 p.m. It said, “If a person enters a scheme, are they responsible for previous substantive crimes?”
That note could apply to any of the defendants who allegedly joined the conspiracy after it was already up and running, Riccio said.
At any rate, the answer is no, attorneys said. A conspirator cannot be held responsible for crimes committed by the conspiracy prior to his or her entrance into the conspiracy.
Judge Thompson didn’t tell the jurors that. Instead, he referred them to a section of their instructions that deals with the question. He promised to have a section of testimony transcript ready for them to hear in the morning, and sent them home.
Notes 3 & 4
Wednesday, the second day of deliberations, began with a brief reading of the requested section of the court transcript. That was followed by note number three: Jurors requested 12 copies of the indictment.
After that, the jury room was quiet. The day dragged on. Defense attorneys amused themselves in the courtroom with movies (Four Lions) and TV shows (30 Rock, Saturday Night Live) on their laptops. Attorney Don Cretella, wearing two-tone shoes and a belt decorated with skulls-and-crossbones, sorted through papers and played DJ for some time (She and Him, Rod Stewart, country tunes). Defendants drifted in and out, trading sections of a newspaper. Olmer impressed a co-defendant by making quick work of the crossword.
“My stomach is in a knot,” said Howard Lawrence as he wandered into the courtroom. He’s representing Avigdor. While waiting for a verdict, an attorney always wonders what he could have done differently, he said. “It’s the nature of the business.”
Later, after lunch, attorneys complained about the meals they’d had. They delved into YouTube. They perused Facebook. Several discovered what Yoko Ono’s music sounds like. Others shared war stories about past cases, or discussed guns and Italian cars.
A hot topic, of course, was when the verdict might come. The discussion was fueled at 2:45 p.m. when courtroom staff mentioned that the jurors had been given a local restaurant menu in case they wanted to put in orders for lunch on Monday. When 3:30 p.m. came and went with still no decision, Cretella announced that he’d won the over-under for the day and that the other defense lawyers owe him lunch.
Then, at 3:55 p.m., another note. It was the question about what to do if jurors can’t agree.
At 4:05 p.m., Judge Thompson emerged and said he’d like to tell the jury to go home and rest.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover, citing a rule of court procedure, said he’d like the judge to ask the jury to return a partial verdict on whatever it could agree on.
After some discussion, Judge Thompson rejected the suggestion. “I don’t want to disrupt the jury dynamics,” he said.
If asked to give a partial verdict, jurors might feel they’re being rushed, Cretella said.
“Your Honor’s suggestion is the best,” Lawrence said.
After the jurors filed in, Thompson told them they’ve worked hard, it’s a complicated case, they’ve only been deliberating since late Tuesday morning, and they should go home and rest. On Monday, after several days off, “see if you’ve had time to sift through your mental processes,” he said.
As they packed up to leave for the week, attorneys reflected on the significance of the fourth note.
“They’re split on some issues,” Lawrence said. The jurors are not finding all defendants guilty on all counts, he said.
It’s a “disaster for the government,” Cretella said. “The longer they go, the better. It shows the government hasn’t proven its case on all counts.”
“They’re thinking really hard,” Riccio said. “It’s clearly not as obvious as the government thought.”
Previous coverage of this case:
• Avigdor’s Final Plea: Follow The Money
• Claire: The Rabbi Is Kosher
• Wednesday The Rabbi Took The Stand
• Straw Buyer Lured Into A Wild Ride
• After Big Fish Plead, Smaller Fry Point Fingers
• Slum-Photo Doctor Makes A Call
• What Happened At Goodfellas Didn’t Stay At Goodfellas
• Fraud Trial Opens With Oz-Like Yarn
• “Partying” MySpacer Lined Up Scam Homebuyers
• “Straw Buyer” Pleads Guilty
• Neighbors, Taxpayers Left With The Tab
• FBI Arrests Police Commissioner, Slumlord, Rabbi
• One Last Gambit Falls Short
• Was He In “Custody”?
• Is Slum Landlord Helping The FBI?
• Feds Snag Poverty Landlord
• Police Commissioner Pleads