By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
After listening silently in the jury box through a 10-month drug gang trial and joining his colleagues in acquitting the defendants of most of the serious conspiracy charges, Jim Caron felt that he had to speak up and explain.
So Caron, a retired government economist, has written to the presiding judge spelling out why he and 11 other jurors considered the government's case unpersuasive and lacking in evidence. He said almost nothing was presented to prove that the six defendants conspired to run a dangerous drug gang, and he urged the judge to do anything he could to prevent such a weak case from going to trial in the future and wasting the court's time and public funds.
Caron's letter last month to U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts has many lawyers in the D.C. courthouse talking about what had been the federal prosecutor's heralded case for 2007 -- one aimed at busting up an allegedly violent cocaine-selling gang controlling the Congress Park neighborhood.
In November, the jury convicted the alleged ringleader, Antwun Ball, and four other defendants on about half of the relatively minor drug distribution charges they faced. It also found one of the men, David Wilson, guilty of murder. But it rejected each of the government's drug conspiracy allegations, which could have resulted in substantial prison time for all the men. A sixth defendant was acquitted of all charges.
The Capitol Hill juror's critique buttresses defense attorneys' earlier claims that the government's case relied on trumped-up conspiracy charges. It has raised doubts, too, about the claim by the U.S. attorney's office that the case was a model of a new law enforcement strategy to help neighborhoods embattled by drug sales by going after drug lords running the distribution network.
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor said yesterday that there was sufficient evidence to find the defendants guilty and that his office "would bring this case again tomorrow" if it could. "We respect the jury system, but we respectfully disagree with this juror's perspective," he said.
Caron told Roberts that he and his fellow jurors were left at the end of the marathon trial scratching their heads to find compelling evidence showing that the six men were part of a narcotics conspiracy or criminal racketeering enterprise. He said almost nothing showed they had conspired over a decade to commit violent crimes and kill rivals in pursuit of their drug business.
"I do feel that the case against the defendants would have been more fairly tried if the prosecution had just focused on the crimes for which they had solid evidence against the defendants," Caron wrote. "I not only could not see a conspiracy among the defendants but also saw no real attempt by the prosecution to present any hard evidence of a conspiracy."
Certainly, Caron said, the government had well-documented, tape-recorded evidence showing that many of them were guilty of selling drugs, though sometimes in amounts as little as $10. But in contrast, Caron said, the murder charges seemed flimsy.
"With some of these [murder] charges, the testimony and other evidence was so lacking that we found the defendant not guilty with very little discussion," Caron wrote. "I did wonder if some of the murder charges would ever have reached the trial stage if they had been prosecuted individually."
In an interview, Caron said he did not suffer any hardship for his experience on the jury; he retired from the Department of Agriculture in 2005 and has a small consulting business. But he said other jurors faced extreme stress when taken away from their careers and families. He said he was primarily concerned about the cost of the trial to the government, because it commandeered nearly a year's time for a judge, his staff, court personnel and prosecutors.
"I would think that would be a big concern for the U.S. attorney's office," Caron said in the interview. "They're expending all this time. What else are they not doing?"
Caron said he left the experience delighted to find that strangers with little in common can work hard to understand one another's positions and reach what he considered the correct and fair conclusion. He said he thinks the defendants, though, might wonder whether the criminal justice system is fair.
"As a society, we want to get the right people," Caron said. "We don't want to just get people."