3 Weeks Into Deliberations, Jurors in Corruption Trial of “Bell 6” Need More Time

The jury was handed the case on Feb. 22 and has asked for multiple testmony read-backs since then

Time flies when you're a jury trying to decide who's guilty and who's not guilty of corruption in the scandal-plagued city of Bell, a look at the calendar reveals.
Between opening statements, testimony, evidence, and closing arguments, the jury for the so-called Bell 6 spent 19 days in the jury box before being sent out to deliberate on Feb. 22

Three weeks later, the jury has yet to notify the judge it has reached verdicts.

"I'm not entirely surprised, but I expected it would be sooner," said Stanley Friedman, attorney for Oscar Hernandez, former Bell Mayor, one of those on trial. 

It would not be proper for him to speculate on what is holding up the jury, Friedman said. But he said the jurors are being conscientious.

"They were very attentive during the trial, and they're doing what they're supposed to do," Friedman said.

The six former Bell City Council members are accused of misappropriating public funds for themselves in the form of payments that the prosecutor says are higher than what's allowed. The six served on the boards of four city entities known as "authorities," for which they were well-paid despite the boards' rarely meeting.

Defense attorneys contended that apart from attending meetings, the accused earned their money working long hours for the working-class city just a few miles southeast of downtown LA.

The prosecution filed 20 counts, alleging five years of violations for each of the four authorities. Three of the defendants--Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, and George Mirabal--were in office during the entire five year period and each faces all 20 counts. 

The other three defendants--Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, and Geroge Cole--were not on the council for some of the years in the 2006-10 period and therefore face fewer counts. 


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But between the six defendants, the jury is tasked with making 96 guilty-or-not-guilty decisions in all. 

If there are convictions on any counts, the jury will have to make additional decisions on enhancements for sentencing as well.

Deliberations had to be re-started five days in, after Juror No. 3 was replaced with an alternate.

Since deliberations began anew, jurors have missed only day, due to an illness, and by the time they broke for the weekend at 3:50 p.m. Friday, they had deliberated 11 days.

Before Juror No. 3 was excused and replaced, a note from the foreman indicated the jury was at a sticking point. But in subsequent messages to the judge, there has been no mention of deadlock or impasse.

The jury has repeatedly sent Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy questions and requests for read-backs of testimony, often focusing on whether there was justification for the defendants' pay.

On Friday, the jury got a read-back of defendant Jacobo's testimony that she was told by City Manager Robert Rizzo -- who faces prosecution in a separate case -- that her council job was changing from part time to full time. 

Another read-back concerned testimony by City Clerk Rebecca Valdez regarding Hernandez. 

Valdez testified that Rizzo had asked her to get then-Mayor Hernandez to sign a back-dated document ordering Rizzo's own pay raise by burying it in a stack of routine documents, evidently with the idea Hernandez would not read everything he was signing.

"They've been asking for very specific read-back, which indicates that they gave close attention to the trial.  They're in general aware of what the testimony was, but they want specifics," Friedman said.

The jury also inquired about the revelation during Friedman's opening statement that Hernandez went through school in his native Mexico only as far as the sixth grade. The judge determined there was no relevant testimony to be read back. 

Most of the defense attorneys argued their clients were not legally sophisticated, and relied on the law firm hired by the city to provide legal advice. 

At trial, there was no evidence that law firm ever warned council members the pay was not legal, and in fact, the firm later defended the salaries in a letter to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office.

As the Bell 6 jurors deliberate in the jury room, Judge Kennedy has kept her courtroom busy with two subsequent trials, one already to verdict, the second finishing testimony Friday.

The Bell jurors are slated to return Monday.

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