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Jury Acquits McDougal of Obstruction

Susan McDougal Susan McDougal after Monday's verdict. (AP)

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  • Coverage of the McDougal Trial

  • Clinton Accused Special Report

  • By Paul Duggan
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, April 13, 1999; Page A1

    LITTLE ROCK, April 12 – A jubilant Susan McDougal prevailed for the first time today after years of legal battles with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, as jurors acquitted her of obstructing justice in the Whitewater investigation and deadlocked on the two other charges, resulting in a mistrial.

    The result was a major setback for Starr's office, which said it would decide shortly whether to retry McDougal on the charges that she committed criminal contempt of court by defying orders to testify before the Whitewater grand jury.

    "We will now carefully assess future steps in light of today's developments," Starr's office said in a statement.

    Reveling in victory outside the federal courthouse minutes after the verdict, McDougal and her lead attorney, Mark Geragos, had nothing but venom for Starr.

    "This guy should pack up and get out of here," Geragos declared. "I'm happy to be the one, along with Susan, to wish him bon voyage. But get the heck out of Arkansas, and do it now. Nobody wants to see you."

    McDougal added: "I'm still a little numb. I've been indicted since 1993, and this is the first day I haven't been indicted in years."

    At the White House, President Clinton was "pleased to learn" that his former business partner was acquitted of obstruction of justice, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. "He wishes all the best for her and her family."

    McDougal, a partner of the Clintons in the failed 1980s Whitewater real estate venture, twice refused to testify before a federal grand jury in Starr's long-running probe of the Clintons' Arkansas business dealings. She served the maximum 18 months for civil contempt of court for her refusal to testify, and then Starr's office took the unusual step of charging her with criminal violations for her defiance.

    Although one of Starr's prosecutors in McDougal's five-week trial called her intransigence "cut and dried" violations of the law, jurors saw far more ambiguity in the case.

    After hearing McDougal's testimony that she refused to answer questions because Starr's lawyers wanted her to falsely implicate the president in wrongdoing, the jury debated only briefly last Thursday -- the first day of deliberations -- before voting to acquit her of obstruction, one juror said.

    In delivering that verdict today, the panel said it was "hopelessly deadlocked" on the other charges: two counts of criminal contempt of court.

    With her right hand resting on the shoulder of Pat Harris, a defense lawyer who also is her fiance, McDougal showed no reaction as U.S. District Judge George Howard Jr. declared a mistrial on the contempt charges. But a moment later, hearing herself pronounced not guilty of obstruction, she collapsed forward, smiling broadly. There was a smattering of applause from her relatives in the spectator gallery.

    "The great thing for me was not the verdict but more that I got my day in court," McDougal said outside the courthouse, describing herself as one of many victims of a ruthless campaign by Starr to root out wrongdoing by Clinton. "I got to tell everything that I have been wanting to tell for years. And we got to put on evidence of lives that Ken Starr has ruined."

    In addition to her jail time for civil contempt, McDougal served 3 1/2 months of a two-year term for fraud convictions in a 1996 case brought by Starr's office. She was then released on health grounds. "I don't know what else to do but be a defendant," she said.

    Prosecutor Mark Barrett, an associate independent counsel, said he spoke with Starr by telephone after the verdict and mistrial. "He respects, as we respect, the verdict of the jury on that," Barrett said of the obstruction count. "That's part of our system."

    Before deciding whether to retry McDougal on the contempt charges, he said, Starr's office will seek Howard's permission this week to interview jurors about their opinions of the prosecution's case.

    Juror Michael Nance, 47, a truck driver, said that from the start, the deadlocked vote on the contempt counts was 7 to 5 for acquittal.

    Speaking for himself, Nance said he was convinced that McDougal honestly believed that Starr's office wanted her to lie and that she feared she would be charged with perjury if she did not falsely implicate Clinton in wrongdoing.

    Nance, who wanted to acquit McDougal of contempt, would not comment on whether he thinks Starr's office did want her to lie. "What I want to say about that, clearly, is that the Office of the Independent Counsel was not on trial here," Nance said. "Only McDougal."

    But Geragos called the acquittal a repudiation of Starr's prosecutorial tactics, and all but dared Starr's lawyers to go forward with a retrial on the contempt charges.

    "I only hope that they retry this," he said. "I would like nothing better than to come down here and try Ken Starr again."

    The case hinged on the legal definitions of contempt and obstruction.

    Instructing the jurors on the law before they began deliberating last Thursday, Howard told them that evidence concerning McDougal's belief that prosecutors were seeking false testimony was only relevant to the obstruction charge, not contempt.

    To support those allegations, Geragos called several witnesses who alleged that they were pressured by Starr's office, including Julie Hiatt Steele.

    Steele testified that Starr's lawyers wanted her to support allegations that Clinton made unwanted sexual advances toward her friend Kathleen E. Willey, a former White House volunteer. When Steele refused to go along, she said, Starr's prosecutors obtained an indictment charging her with perjury. She is awaiting trial in Virginia next month.

    On the contempt charges against McDougal, jurors were told they could not consider allegations of prosecutorial harassment by Starr. But clearly such evidence crept into their deliberations.

    "Her state of mind was, if she didn't say [to the grand jury] exactly what she was told to say, then she could be held for perjury," Nance said.

    Barrett noted that the testimony of Steele and others was allowed because of the obstruction count and that no such testimony would be allowed in a retrial on the contempt charges. If McDougal is retried, he said, "we would anticipate a much more streamlined prosecution."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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