'Does unlawful mean illegal?' Jurors in city councilman's USC bribery trial mull instructions
Prosecutors are concerned an instruction may be misleading jurors in Mark Ridley-Thomas' trial into believing they must find an additional unlawful act beyond bribery.
Jurors in suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ federal corruption trial asked questions on Tuesday that indicate they’re continuing to struggle with the fundamentals of the 19-count indictment.
They raised two issues in a note U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer discussed with the attorneys about 9:10 a.m.: First, they asked what the difference is between method and mean and asked if they could get an example related to Ridley-Thomas’ case.
Then they asked “does unlawful mean illegal?” and asked for an example of “unlawful” methods or means.
Judge Fischer said the note referenced page 24 of the jury instructions, but a copy of her final jury instructions is not publicly available so it’s difficult for me and the other reporters who have been sitting in the hallway awaiting any action (Matt Hamilton from the Los Angeles Times and Gina Kim from Law360) to follow the courtroom discussions about the questions.
Fischer said right away that jurors won’t be getting examples of anything. Ridley-Thomas’ lawyer Daralyn Durie said she’s fine with jurors being told that unlawful does mean illegal, but she doesn’t believe there’s anything clarifying to say regarding method vs. mean. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson requested an hour to research a proposed answer, and Fischer agreed.
An hour later, Fischer said she’d looked at prosecutors’ proposal and “the addition of the word ‘bribery’ is clearly something I’m not going to do.”
“‘He committed bribery because he committed bribery’ is not helpful,” Fischer said.
The judge said she was “seriously tempted to just start over with this instruction or at least with that paragraph.”
Durie objected, saying she’d based her closing argument on the finalized jury instructions. Dotson suggested removing an entire paragraph, saying its presence created an additional burden of proof on prosecutors by suggesting there has to be another unlawful mean or method beyond the act of bribery in itself.
Judge Fischer agreed to tell the jury the defense’s suggested answer, over the objection of prosecutors. She didn’t read it aloud, so press row was left a bit in the dark.
The next question three hours later probably didn’t lessen prosecutors’ concerns: “Is violating fiduciary duty in and of itself unlawful?”
Prosecutors said the answer is “yes”.
“I don’t think that’s the right answer,” Judge Fischer replied.
“I don’t think either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is correct,” the judge continued. “It depends on the nature of the fiduciary duty.”
Durie requested more time to respond, which Fischer allowed. They’re to reconvene at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The judge closed by saying she tries “without success“ to not speculate about jury notes because such speculation “often times turns out to be completely wrong.”
“Maybe they’re just curious,” Fischer said.
The question came in as the jury left for the day at 2:30 p.m. Ridley-Thomas and his wife, Avis, and some of their friends were almost outside the courthouse when Ridley-Thomas got the word to return to Fischer’s 7th floor courtroom.
Jurors are considering a lengthy verdict form with single counts of conspiracy and bribery, two counts of honest services mail fraud and 15 counts of honest services wire fraud.
Ridley-Thomas is accused of conspiring with Marilyn Flynn, the now-dean emeritus of the University of Southern California School of Social Work, involving a scholarship and job for his son in exchange for lucrative county contracts, as well as the funneling of $100,000 in Ridley-Thomas campaign money through USC to United Way to hire a director for a new policy initiative created in the wake of his son’s resignation from the California State Assembly.
Jurors on Monday heard a read back of key testimony related to it from Ann Ravel, a defense witness and former California Fair Political Practices Commission chairwoman who testified the $100,000 transactions were legal.
Jurors to return to the deliberation room at 8 a.m. on Wednesday. (They began deliberating Friday about 10 a.m. and went until 2:30 p.m., then deliberated 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.) I should be at the courthouse by 8:30 a.m. and will share new developments on Twitter.
I appeared on Spectrum News 1 SoCal early Monday to discuss the trial. Here’s the full video.
March 28: Why didn't ex-USC Dean Marilyn Flynn testify in Los Angeles politico Mark Ridley-Thomas' trial?
Rebuttal: March 26: Jury hears prosecutor's final account of Mark Ridley-Thomas' evolving USC bribery scheme
Closing arguments: March 23: Defense says USC’s 'VIP' treatment made scholarship for Mark Ridley-Thomas' son 'business as usual'
Defense witnesses including Ann Ravel: March 22: Defense rests in suspended L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' federal corruption trial
FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins: March 20: More from the FBI agent's testimony in L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' criminal trial
MRT and Ralph Frammolino emails, USC whistleblower Michele Clark, USC employee Adriana Gonzalez: March 18: Prosecutors rest their public corruption case against L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas
Voir dire, evidentiary hearing: (I missed the first three trial days) March 8: primer on suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' bribery trial
Legal Affairs and Trials with Meghann Cuniff is a reader-supported publication. To further support my work, become a paid subscriber.