Las Vegas gambler Jamiel (Jimmy) Chagra was found not guilty today of charges that he hired the killer who shot U.S. District Court Judge John Wood, the first federal judge murdered in this century.
The jury that acquitted Chagra of murder and conspiracy to murder had not been allowed to hear that his brother, Joe, had pleaded guilty to conspiring with Jimmy to murder Wood.
The jury convicted Chagra of two lesser charges: conspiring to obstruct justice by escaping the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., where he is serving 30 years for drug smuggling, and by intimidating witnesses in his murder trial; and conspiring to smuggle more drugs to finance his planned escape.
The jury deliberated nearly 20 hours since getting the case Friday.
The government claimed that Jimmy Chagra had Wood killed to avoid having to face trial in his court on drug-smuggling charges. Wood was known as "Maximum John" for the heavy sentences he handed down in drug cases.
Chagra, 39, a licensed professional gambler, was accused of paying Charles V. Harrelson $250,000 to kill the judge. Wood, 61, was struck in the back with an exploding bullet from a big game rifle as he was getting into his car outside his San Antonio home May 29, 1979.
Harrelson, 44, was convicted by a federal jury in San Antonio in December of Wood's murder.
Chagra's wife, Elizabeth, was found guilty of murder conspiracy and conspiracy to obstruct justice, and Harrelson's wife, Jo Ann, was convicted of the obstruction charge.
Joe Chagra, 36, pleaded guilty to murder conspiracy in exchange for a 10-year sentence and not having to testify against his brother. He was sentenced Dec. 21.
Sentencing for Jimmy Chagra tentatively was set for March 8, the same day his wife and the Harrelsons will be sentenced.
Chagra faces a maximum 15 years' imprisonment for the marijuana importation charge and five years for conspiracy to obstruct justice.
"They forced my brother to lie," Chagra said after leaving the courtroom.
Chagra embraced his attorney, Oscar B. Goodman of Las Vegas, who called it "the most important acquittal in the history of jury trials."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ray Jahn said, "The jury has spoken. If you believe in the system, you believe in it all the way."
He said he wanted to compliment Goodman, who he noted "has a national reputation and deservedly so."
After Wood's death, Chagra was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge William S. Sessions to 30 years without parole for operating a continuing criminal enterprise involving drug dealing. Sessions presided over the San Antonio murder trial and over Chagra's trial, which was moved to Jacksonville because of publicity in Texas.
The government's case was based primarily on taped conversations among Chagra, his wife and brother, and Jerry Ray James, a "habitual criminal" serving a life term at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
James testified that Chagra bragged to him at their second meeting in prison that he was responsible for having Wood killed.
The defense, faced with a massive array of evidence and testimony by the prosecution, presented only two witnesses and wrapped up its case in just 12 minutes.
Goodman did not deny that Chagra paid Harrelson $250,000, but he said it was blackmail money Harrelson had extorted. Goodman said Chagra bragged about being responsible for the killing only to look like a "tough guy" to other prison inmates.
The defense claimed that Chagra had no motive to murder Wood because he knew he would be eligible for parole if he entered into a plea bargain with the government in the narcotics case.