Monday, November 17, 2008

Lies, Racehorses, and the Wayward Juror


Red Smith was right: “Reality has strangled invention.”

And although the old-time sportswriter was speaking about the New York Giants’ stunning victory in the baseball game featuring “the Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” that horseracing fan would particularly appreciate the latest turn in the trial of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

Background: The Juror Who Left

The juror who froze up one of the country’s most-publicized trials by leaving deliberations supposedly to go to her father’s funeral went to the track instead.

The day after the jury got the case, the judge held an after-hours hearing to announce that a juror had left Washington, D.C. to deal with a family emergency.

The next morning, Judge Emmet Sullivan reported at another hearing outside the presence of the jury that he had spoken twice with the juror. That juror—Juror No. 4—had told the judge him that her father had died and that she was on her way to his funeral services in California.

Reporting these conversations, Judge Sullivan said “I told her that having lost my own father a couple of years ago, I knew what she was going through….I left it at that and told her godspeed.”

As Roll Call reported, at that point the courtroom fell silent “and remained quiet for more than a minute.”

Judge Sullivan recessed the trial for the day and ultimately dismissed Juror No. 4 when he could not reach her again after the night she announced that she was leaving. The court replaced Juror No. 4 with Alternate No. 1, a juror who had served all through the trial and then went on standby status during the deliberations. As newly constituted, the jury convicted the Alaska Republican of all charges in less than six hours of deliberations.

Those verdicts came down on Monday afternoon, October 27, and some assumed that the question of what happened to Juror No. 4 was over. But Judge Sullivan didn’t let it go, and he scheduled a hearing for Juror No. 4 for November 3 to explain why she had not stayed in contact with the court after the first phone calls the day she announced she was leaving.

The Post-Trial Hearing on Why the Juror Didn’t Keep Contact with the Court

At the hearing, Juror No. 4 appeared under her actual name, Marian Hinnant, and her actual story turned out to be deeply weird.

The whole “Dad’s dead” story was false, she told the court. Hinnant left the trial because she
had a plane ticket to go to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at the famed Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. (And as the Washington Post reported, her father is alive and well in North Carolina.)

Hinnant’s trip to the Breeders’ Cup added—in the words of Erika Bolstad in the Anchorage Daily News—“yet another bizarre twist to a story that has no lack of them.” The Breeders’ Cup had a race that included a horse owned by key government witness Bill Allen’s son, who had received immunity from prosecution as a result of Allen’s cooperation with the feds in their investigations into public corruption in Alaska. The Daily News reported that the horse—which finished next-to-last—is the half-brother of So Long Birdie. This thoroughbred was once owned by a partnership that included Stevens, Allen, and Allen’s son as well as two Alaska businessmen who figured prominently in the trial—real estate developer and sportfishing promoter Bob Penney and restaurant owner Bob Persons.

Chief federal prosecutor Brenda Morris had used the defendant’s part ownership of a racehorse as a key theme in the government’s rebuttal closing argument, telling the jury that Ted Stevens had gambled on hiding his gifts from Allen and had lost.

After apologizing for lying, Hinnant told the court what the Associated Press called “a long rambling story about horses, which included references to horse breeding, the Breeders' Cup, drugs, President Ford's son Steven and her condo in Florida being bugged.”

Although her court-appointed attorney was unsuccessful in keeping his client quiet during the hearing, Judge Sullivan seemed to take pity on her and did not order her punished for her misconduct.

When the hearing ended, Hinnant gave an impromptu press conference to a trailing pack of reporters as she walked towards the subway station hundreds of feet from the courthouse. She told the journalists that she believed Stevens was guilty, but “He didn’t do anything any of the other Congressman and Senators hadn’t done.”

Implications of the Strange Behavior of the Juror Who Loved Horse Races

It’s unclear what effect this strange incident will have during the motion for a new trial to be made to Judge Sullivan and the appeal that will follow the sentencing if Judge Sullivan denies that motion. Prosecutors will point out that the jury that convicted Stevens on the last day of deliberations did not include this apparently disturbed individual. The defense attorneys, on the other hand, will use the odd facts around Juror No. 4 to add to the atmospherics of their pleadings, trying to paint a picture that the trial was a circus whose result can’t be trusted. As Libby Casey of the Alaska Public Radio Network reported, Sen. Stevens’ lawyers followed Hinnant into the subway station even though the reporters did not.

Legal experts contacted by the Washington Post and the Anchorage Daily News predicted that the misconduct by this juror would have little effect on any motion to overturn the verdict or any appeal.

Campaigning hours after the hearing, Stevens tried to turn the news of the bizarre juror to his political advantage. The Senator cited Hinnant’s lies and odd behavior to suggest that his trial was unfair and that he should be re-elected to his seventh full term despite the guilty verdicts.
At the election the next day, Stevens performed much better against his Democratic opponent—Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich—than all the polls predicted. Although the election’s outcome is
still in doubt, some have speculated that publicity about the odd juror had indeed helped Stevens.

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