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Crime Scene
Posted at 08:59 AM ET, 02/15/2012

Why a sting case has faltered in court

In a story published Tuesday about a Justice Department sting, I focused heavily on text messages exchanged between an informant and his FBI handler – real-time communiques that shed light on a relationship that is often cloaked in secrecy.

These fascinated me because I have never seen such text messages made public before. They raised questions about how agents conducted themselves in a high-profile investigation.

It was also interesting to watch experienced defense lawyers — Steven McCool, Michael Madigan, Paul Calli, Charles Leeper, Eric Dubelier and David Krakoff — exploit the messages. In the end, jurors apparently did not appreciate their joking with the informant about sex, booty calls or the Village People.

Prosecutors failed to win a single conviction in 20 weeks of trial of 10 defendants. Three were acquitted.

But there were other reasons for prosecutors’ lack of success that I touched on in an earlier story. For example, undercover FBI agents and the informant never uttered the words “bribe” or “kickback” in tape-recorded meetings; instead they referred to a $1.5 bribe payment as a “commission,” a term defense lawyers deemed sufficiently vague to be worthy of expoitation in court.

And the discussions about the commission were often short and sandwiched within chitchat and conversation about other aspects of the deal, making it difficult for jurors to figure out what the defendants were thinking at the time.

The agents also made a basic math error in calculating the commission and were not the best actors – one playing a Frenchman named Pascal Latour had an accent straight out of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies.

The jury foreman, who requested anonymity to protect his privacy, told me that the “texts were one of many things that point to an absolutely amateurish operation.” But the 36-year-old non-practicing attorney also wrote a lengthy and thoughtful analysis of the case for a blog maintained by Michael Koehler, a law professor at Butler University.

The essay sheds light on why he and other jurors felt the prosecution faltered, and I encourage anyone interested in the sting to read it.

I’m sure officials in the Justice Department’s criminal division and the District’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, which jointly prosecuted the case, have digested every word as they weigh whether to continue trying the remaining 16 defendants. They should announce a decision any day.

Read more: The Post’s criminal justice coverage

By  |  08:59 AM ET, 02/15/2012

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