If the juror who mysteriously was excused midway through the public corruption trial of Robert F. McDonnell had been allowed to join the deliberations, the outcome likely would have been very different.
Having heard most of the prosecution’s case — and none of the defense’s — Louis DeNitto Jr. said, in several interviews, that he would have pushed against convicting McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, of public corruption. What the governor did for Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., DeNitto said, did not seem out of line with what other politicians do for benefactors.
“That jury foreman would have had a hell of a time with me,” DeNitto said.
DeNitto, a government contractor from Nottoway County, did not view all the evidence, and he acknowledged that there was a “slim chance” that hearing more witnesses and seeing more documents might have changed his opinion. U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer excused him without explanation on the trial’s 12th day.
Although prosecutors would rest their case just two days later, DeNitto did not listen to the testimony of several important people, including an FBI agent who tried to pull the case together using phone, text and e-mail records and summary charts of the McDonnells’ dealings with Williams. He heard all of Williams’s testimony but none of McDonnell’s, who took the stand in his own defense for nearly 24 hours and also faced a withering cross-examination.
DeNitto watched from afar as McDonnell was convicted of 11 public corruption counts and his wife found guilty of eight public corruption counts and an additional count of obstruction of justice. Jurors deliberated for more than 17 hours before determining that the former state attorney general and possible national candidate had sold his office to Williams in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods.
DeNitto, though, said he remains skeptical, and he is unhappy to have been excused from the jury. He retained a lawyer, saying he was caught in a “sticky situation,” and that the reason for his being excused — which he declined to reveal — was “part of the appeals process.”
“It was completely unethical,” DeNitto said of Spencer’s excusing him. Through his courtroom deputy, Spencer declined to comment.
Cullen Seltzer, DeNitto’s attorney, declined to detail why he was hired or why DeNitto was removed from the jury. But he said in a statement that DeNitto was “proud to have been asked to fulfill his civic duty to serve as a juror” and “disappointed that he was not permitted to complete that service.”
“Had he been permitted to continue serving, he was committed to doing so impartially, in accordance with the Court’s instructions, and to the best of his ability,” Seltzer said. “As the case continues, Mr. DeNitto hopes that the matter will be resolved justly. He wishes all concerned good luck in the discharge of their duties in this case and to continue in his own affairs privately.”
Legal experts unconnected to the case said judges have wide latitude in excusing jurors, although they must find “good cause” to do so. If a juror violated the judge’s instructions, or lied or withheld information in answering the court’s questions, he or she could be rightfully dismissed, said Matthew G. Kaiser of the Kaiser Law Firm.
Almost from the moment it happened, DeNitto’s removal from the jury has been shrouded in mystery. Spencer conferred at length with prosecutors and defense attorneys in his chambers before emerging and telling the other jurors that DeNitto had been let go, but he didn’t say why. McDonnell emerged from the meeting looking angry.
Robin Trujillo, 54, of Richmond, a juror who ultimately helped decide the case, said two court officials entered the jury room and called DeNitto’s name, and in an instant, he was gone. He left behind a bag lunch that sat on the windowsill for days, she said.
“They didn’t even give him a chance to collect his stuff,” Trujillo said. “They just asked him to come with them, and we never saw him again.”
At the moment he left, DeNitto said he was unmoved by the help McDonnell gave Williams in promoting his company, Star Scientific, and its nutritional supplement Anatabloc.
Prosecutors said that in exchange for gifts and money, McDonnell arranged a meeting for Williams with a state health official, allowed the businessman to throw an event to promote Anatabloc at the governor’s mansion and even once personally talked about the benefits of Anatabloc to state human-resources officials as he displayed a bottle of the supplement. Williams wanted Anatabloc included in the state’s health-care plan.
“He held up a bottle of Anatabloc? So what,” DeNitto said.
And DeNitto said he was generally skeptical of the effort to prosecute McDonnell. In particular, he said he believed that prosecutors “let a big fish go to try to get a little one” in granting generous immunity deals to Williams in exchange for his testimony.
“Weigh the value of the justice there,” DeNitto said. “They gave up a whole lot just to get this guy on nothing more than any other politician has done.”
Trujillo disagreed with many of DeNitto’s characterizations of the case. She said she thought the former governor seemed angry and evasive as Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dry cross-examined him.
She said she was particularly swayed by the timing of gifts the McDonnells received in relation to acts they took for Williams — even if those acts did not result in state contracts or state-funded studies of Williams’s product. Jurors, Trujillo said, hung a timeline on the wall, concluding both that Williams got special treatment from McDonnell and that the treatment was the result of bribes.
“After every time they got something, then Jonnie Williams got something,” Trujillo said. “Just because he didn’t get a contract doesn’t mean McDonnell’s not guilty.”
Legal experts said the McDonnells’ legal teams might make DeNitto’s dismissal part of their appeal, although that would be a long shot. Essentially, all Spencer must do is give a reasonable explanation, said Edward T. Kang, a former federal prosecutor now at the Alston & Bird firm.
“The key thing is there needs to be some finding on the record as to why that ‘good cause’ standard has been met,” Kang said. “If Judge Spencer even put something on the record, it’s likely that the appellate court is going to give significant deference.”
Attorneys for Robert and Maureen McDonnell declined to comment for this article, as did U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente.
Alice Crites, Magda Jean-Louis and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.