Ulysses Currie jury wasn’t ready to acquit at outset of deliberations


Maryland state Sen. Ulysses Currie, from right, his wife the Rev. Shirley A. Gravely-Currie and his lawyers, Joseph Evans and Lucius T. Outlaw III., leave the U.S. District Court house Tuesday. (Kenneth K. Lam/BALTIMORE SUN)
November 9, 2011

Not all of the jurors were ready to acquit when deliberations began in the corruption trial of Maryland state Sen. Ulysses Currie, according to two of the jurors. Some had been impressed with the prosecution’s evidence against the Prince George’s County Democrat. And at times, it got pretty heated in the jury room.

But after three days, the jurors agreed that prosecutors had fallen short, and they concluded that they had no choice but to acquit Currie and the two grocery chain executives charged in the case.

In separate interviews after Tuesday’s verdict, the two jurors, Nos. 4 and 12, provided a behind-the-scenes account of the jury’s deliberations and what led the panel to its verdict.

“It’s almost like the evidence was a foot and this shoe didn’t fit quite right,” said Seth Binfield, 28, an engineer from College Park who was referred to as Juror No. 12 during the trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Binfield and the other jurors sat through testimony that was presented over six weeks as prosecutors sought to prove that Currie and executives of Shoppers Food Warehouse conspired to use Currie’s Senate office to do favors for the grocery chain, including advocating for traffic-light requests, a liquor license transfer and some development deals.

Over the course of more than five years, Currie was paid $245,000.

Both Binfield and Juror No. 4, Steven Cason, said everyone on the jury thought that Currie’s actions raised ethical questions. The senator’s attorneys said Currie’s work for Shoppers was the product of a legitimate consulting arrangement, but they acknowledged that there had been some conflicts of interests.

Ultimately, the jurors said, it wasn’t clear that Currie and the two grocery executives were guilty of the crimes that they had been charged with, including bribery, extortion, conspiracy and making false statements to the FBI.

“We didn’t see evidence that the actions that were unethical were done for some criminal purpose with criminal intent,” said Cason, 55, a software engineer from Freeland, Md.

The two jurors said they kept open minds throughout the weeks of testimony.

Cason said he was leaning toward guilty on several counts after hearing the prosecution’s case. But, he said, Currie’s defense team did a good job of casting doubt on the motives suggested by prosecutors.

What proved pivotal, Binfield said, were the lengthy instructions given by the judge at the end of the case that explained the elements necessary for a conviction. When the jurors began measuring the evidence against those standards, Binfield said, it became clear that the prosecution had fallen short.

“There was a bar to be set, and the prosecution could only get maybe halfway,” Binfield said. “In the end, I think we made the right decision.”

Binfield and Cason said the jurors did some talking about the parade of character witnesses put on by the defense, including several high-profile politicians who praised Currie’s honesty and integrity. Among them were U.S. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) and former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

In the end, the politicians “probably made pretty little difference,” Binfield said.

More impressive, Cason said, were witnesses called by attorneys for the two executives — William J. White, former president of Shoppers, and R. Kevin Small, who oversaw store construction — to attest to their stellar reputations within the grocery industry.

The two jurors said they had a hard time buying the prosecution’s contention that Currie and White forged a criminal conspiracy in late 2002 that Small joined soon thereafter. Much of Currie’s early work for the chain, including minority outreach, seemed pretty benign, Cason said.

Some jurors, Cason said, began to develop an alternative theory of the case: “The consulting agreement was innocent in the beginning, but the three of them sort of drifted into illegal activities through carelessness.”

On Monday, jurors sent a note asking the judge whether a conspiracy conviction was possible if the criminal activity started up to two years later than the prosecution alleged. The jurors were told that it was.

Yet the more they talked, the clearer it became that there was still an issue with establishing criminal intent, Cason said.

“I don’t think any of the jurors were convinced that Currie meant to do wrong,” Cason said. But he added: “When you’re a senator, you need to tow an ethical line. I think he fell down on that job.”

Shortly after the verdict Tuesday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said Currie would face ethics proceedings in the General Assembly, most likely when lawmakers return in January.

Punishment could include expulsion, but legislative aides said Wednesday that something along the lines of a formal reprimand seems more likely.

The watchdog group Common Cause Maryland called for a swift censure of Currie, and a Baltimore Sun editorial urged his expulsion.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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