Jury Deadlocks on Steele Charges
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 1999; Page A7
A U.S. District judge yesterday declared a mistrial in the case of Julie Hiatt Steele after jurors declared that they were "hopelessly deadlocked" about whether the 52-year-old Richmond mother of three obstructed justice and made false statements in connection with the White House sex scandal.
"It's time to celebrate," said Steele, the only person indicted in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of the Monica S. Lewinsky matter. If convicted, Steele could have faced up to 35 years in prison. "It's been a long, long road," she said, getting a hug from her attorney Nancy Luque in front of the Alexandria courthouse.
The mistrial was the second setback in less than a month for Starr's office, following the acquittal of Susan McDougal in Little Rock on charges of obstruction of justice for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating President Clinton's role in the failed Whitewater development.
Deputy independent counsel Jay Apperson, who was at the Alexandria courthouse yesterday, said he had relayed the outcome to Starr by cellular phone. Asked if he was disappointed, Apperson said, "It'd be nice to get a decision and move on to other areas" of investigation.
David Barger, the lead prosecutor, said his office had not decided whether to put Steele on trial again. "We will evaluate our options and decide the best way to proceed," he said.
Steele was indicted in January on three counts of obstruction of justice and one count of making false statements. She was accused of lying to federal agents and two grand juries in connection with the case of her longtime friend Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer who alleges she was groped by the president in 1993.
The case turned on the question of when Willey told Steele about her alleged encounter with Clinton. The jury of seven women and five men sat through three days of prosecution testimony and was prepared Thursday to begin hearing from the defense when Steele's lawyers abruptly decided not to call a single witness.
One juror, Mary Lyn Bourque, said after the trial that jurors were disappointed that Steele didn't take the stand. "Most of us were very surprised," she said. "We wanted to hear it from her side, not the prosecution's." Instead, the jury played a videotape of Steele's interview on "Larry King Live" and pored over phone records and depositions.
"We had wads of telephone bills and wads of bank information, but . . . it just didn't piece up to sufficient evidence to warrant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," said Bourque, 61, who has a job with the U.S. government. "It wasn't one person holding everyone up -- it was more than one person for some common reasons."
In the end, she said, deliberations centered on the credibility of the witnesses, including Willey. One juror criticized the length of the black dress that Willey, 52, wore on her first day of testimony, Bourque said.
"There were a number of jurors that thought Kathleen Willey came across very poorly," Bourque said. "One woman commented, 'I wouldn't have worn such a short skirt if I wanted to impress anyone.' "
Jurors also decided among themselves that they would focus on the specifics of the charges against Steele and not discuss the broader questions of the Clinton investigation and the tactics of the independent counsel's office. In her closing arguments, Luque told the jury that her client was an innocent victim of Starr's determination to pursue the president.
"One person did say he thought of this as Ken Starr's dying gasp," Bourque said.
After nearly nine hours of deliberation, the jurors sent U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton a final note: "We are hopelessly deadlocked on all counts. Any further deliberation will not change the outcome." Hilton told the lawyers the word "not" was underlined.
Steele contends she first heard about Willey's alleged White House encounter in 1997, when Willey asked for corroboration of her story to a Newsweek reporter. Steele corroborated the story but later recanted and said Willey had asked her to lie. But prosecutors say Willey told her about the incident the day it allegedly happened, Nov. 29, 1993.
The government lawyers contend that Steele tried to persuade Willey to sell her story to the tabloids and changed her own version in hopes she could profit. Prosecutors pointed out that Steele made thousands of dollars selling a photograph of Willey and Clinton to news outlets. They also produced three former friends of Steele's who said Steele knew about Willey's alleged encounter before 1997.
Prosecutors hoped that Willey, who testified for about six hours, would solidify the case against Steele. But Willey's credibility appeared to deteriorate under attacks by the defense. Willey was forced to acknowledge discrepancies in various sworn statements. It was revealed that she was granted a second immunity deal from Starr's office after she admitted to lying about a relationship she had with a younger man. Willey admitted that she tried to punish her then-boyfriend by falsely telling him she was pregnant.
In addition, the jury learned that Willey told a grand jury that Steele was anorexic and informed investigators that there might be legal problems with the adoption of Steele's Romanian-born son -- leading agents to question Steele's family about the child.
Willey, who runs in some of Richmond's elite social circles, was forced to acknowledge that she had an affair with a married man and asked Steele to cover for her when she skipped a family funeral to visit him in Pennsylvania. Even more damaging may have been Willey's admission that she used her husband's suicide note to try to avoid paying $274,000 he stole from clients.
Steele's attorneys gambled that they would not need to put their client on the stand to rebut Willey, a risky strategy sometimes used by criminal defense lawyers. One Alexandria defense lawyer not involved in the case, Alan Yamamoto, said the maneuver apparently worked.
"They thought the government didn't carry their burden, and obviously there were some jurors that thought that was correct," Yamamoto said. "The last impression you want to leave with the jury is Willey, who was shown to have not told the truth on occasion. You don't want to give the government an opportunity to then impeach your client."
Willey's attorney, Daniel Gecker, of Richmond, said the entire Clinton matter has been hard on his client, and the last week has added to the ordeal.
"Nobody should go through what Ms. Willey went through during the course of the trial," Gecker said.
Staff writer Maria Glod contributed to this report.
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