RICHMOND — Jurors opened deliberations in the federal corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on Tuesday, spending 51 / 2 hours discussing the case without settling on a verdict.
They will resume their work Wednesday morning.
The seven men and five women of the jury heard five weeks of testimony in the case, which attracted nationwide attention. On Tuesday, they heard nearly two hours of instructions from Judge James R. Spencer before retiring to determine the couple’s fate.
A 14-count public corruption indictment alleges that the McDonnells lent the prestige of the governor’s office to a wealthy businessman in exchange for $177,000 in gifts and loans.
During the trial, jurors heard from 67 witnesses, including the businessman, dietary supplement executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr., as well as the former governor, who took the stand in his own defense for nearly 24 hours over several days.
The instructions Spencer gave Tuesday stretched to nearly 90 pages and, in certain key respects, gave prosecutors a last victory just before jurors gathered to begin discussing their verdict.
To find the couple guilty of the core corruption charges pending against them, the jury must decide that they entered into an agreement with Williams to accept his largesse in exchange for agreeing to perform “official acts” for him or his company.
Since the McDonnells’ indictments in January, defense attorneys have argued that Spencer should define an “official act” narrowly and tell the jury that simply setting up a meeting or holding an event does not qualify.
Instead, Spencer decided on a definition that prosecutors insisted has been established as proper in past cases. He told jurors that an official act means “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit or controversy, which may at any time be pending or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such public official’s capacity.”
He also said that the action can include acts “that a public official customarily performs” even if they are not prescribed in law, that the acts can be merely steps intended to further a longer-term goal and that the official need not have actual power over the goal, provided the person paying a bribe reasonably believed that he held influence over it.
“That’s a bad definition for the defense,” said Matthew G. Kaiser, a white-collar lawyer at the Kaiser Law Firm.
“If the court is instructing the jury that an official act doesn’t have to be one that’s established by law but, instead, is just the kind of thing governors and other elected officials normally do, that makes it a lot easier for the jury to find that access to the governor’s mansion are official acts.”
Jurors were told that what the McDonnells stand accused of doing is “performing official actions on an as-needed basis, as opportunities arose, to legitimize, promote and obtain research studies for Star Scientific’s products.”
McDonnell has not denied that he directed subordinates to attend meetings with Williams and that he attended an event at the governor’s mansion in August 2011 that marked the launch of a new product by Williams’s company. McDonnell also has not disputed that the businessman helped shape the invitation list at another mansion event for health-care leaders in 2012.
Those actions came in close proximity to gifts and loans Williams provided. In one instance, six minutes after e-mailing the businessman about a $50,000 loan, McDonnell e-mailed a subordinate asking to discuss the scientific studies Williams wanted.
McDonnell testified both that Williams never asked him to take official action for his company and that he never agreed to do so in exchange for gifts or loans.
Defense attorneys objected repeatedly to the instructions, including one last time Tuesday morning, before jurors were brought into the courtroom to hear them.
“I don’t know how many times you can object to them,” Spencer replied. “I don’t think there’s any question.”
In other respects, however, the defense won instructions that could assist their clients. Jurors were told, for instance, that the path to guilt for Maureen McDonnell on the public corruption counts the couple share goes directly through her husband.
As a private citizen, she can be convicted of acting with him as part of a conspiracy to corrupt his office. But if he is found not guilty of the corruption charges, she cannot solely be found guilty of them.
She has also been charged with one count of obstruction of justice and one count of lying on a financial document. The former governor also faces two counts of falsifying financial records.
Jurors were also instructed that “good faith” is a defense to the charges, another boost to the defense. That is, prosecutors must prove that the McDonnells knowingly acted to break the law.
Also on Tuesday, Spencer ruled that at some future time, likely after the trial has ended, he will release the questionnaires jurors filled out as part of the selection process by which they were chosen to serve, with some personal and private information redacted.
The Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch had asked the judge to release the information.