When Larry Watson was acquitted Wednesday in federal court of a drug felony charge that could have drawn a 10-year prison term, the judge told Watson that he was a "lucky man."
Yesterday, it turned out, Watson was even luckier than the judge had thought.
The jurors who heard the case against Watson belatedly informed the judge that they actually had intended to convict the defendant. But the jury foreman had marked the wrong box- "not guilty" rather than "guilty" - on the verdict form.
The result is that Watson went free on the heroin charge because the jury informed the judge of its foreman's mistake after it had been discharged from service. Watson's codefendant, John Huff, was convicted of possessing more than one ounce of low-quality heroin and was sent to jail immediately after the verdict.
Contributing to the bizarre outcome were the way the judge had the jury report the verdict and the fact the jurors did not say anything about the foreman's mistake until they had left the courtroom.
The jurors had heard two days of testimony about Watson, 29, of 1631 13th St. NW, and Huff, 37, of 1203 Floral St. NW, before they were sent out to deliberate Tuesday afternoon.
They returned to the courthouse Wednesday morning and announced aroun 10:30 that they had reached a verdict U.S. District Judge John H. Pratt called in defense attorneys William Garber and Allan M. Palmer and prosecutor Neil I. Levy and asked the foreman for the typed verdict form that is given to a jury for use during deliberations.
Instead of asking the foreman to read the verdict himself, Judge Pratt read aloud the verdicts of guilty for Huff and not guilty for Watson and asked the foreman if that was correct. The foreman replied that it was, according to person who were there.
Palmer, whose client was convicted of the major count against him, asked Pratt to Poll each juror separately as to his or her verdict involving Huff. The judge asked the jurors if they had found Huff guilty, and each replied affirmatively.
However, during the poll on Huff, one of the jurors questioned the judge to make sure he was asking only about the Huff verdict - apparently in anticipation of a separate poll about the Watson verdict.
Since Watson was acquitted, Garber did not ask for a poll. Instead, the judge dismissed the jury and set Watson free.
INstead of leaving the jury room immediately, the jurors stayed for a few minutes and asked to see the judge, according to persons involved in the case.
At the time, the jurors reportedly told a member of the judge's staff that the form was wrong and they had intended to convict Watson of a lesser charge of possessing heroin. Both defendants were tried on one count of a charge of possessing heroin with the intent to distribute heroin with the intent to distribute. A second count was a lesser charge of possessing heroin.
The foreman was allowed to see the judge and reportedly admitted his mistake. The judge decided, menwhile, to keep the incident quiet overnight and call in the attorneys yesterday morning. It was at that morning session yesterday that Pratt disclosed the mistake, and affirmed tha the constitutional protection against double jeopardy prevented Watson's deing tried again on the same charge.
The two men were arrested on Sept. 28 in the 1400 block of Swann Street NW by police who had reportedly seen Huff selling heroin out of a brown paper bag. When police moved in, Huff reportedly gave the bag to Watson and Watson walked away.
Police testified that they saw the bag drop out of Watson's pocket and they saw Watson place it nearby in a stairwell. Watson was then arrested, and the bag was found to contain about $1,600 worth of heroin, officers said.
Garber said his client, who did not etestify, claimed that he was not connected with the drugs and that the event did not occur as the officers said it did.
Simple possession of heroin normally carries a none-year term. However, for repeat offenders the penalty is 10 years.
Watson was convicted earlier this summer of a drug charge in U.S. District Court and is on one-year probation. Probation officers are attempting to have his probation revoked based on the Swann Street incident, and Watson has been placed in a half-way house of counseling pending the outcome of that probation hearing.
Garger said yesterday that he had been unable to reach his clientto tell him about the jury's mistake.