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Function of Juries & Jury Nullification | 23 Apr 2014

-Jurors Say ‘No’ to Testifying Down

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Jury BoxOne of the justifications offered for plea bargaining is that it allows prosecutors to engage lesser offenders in the pursuit of convicting more serious offenders. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Often it is just a matter of who caved first and gave up their right to trial by jury in exchange for a known penalty. In such cases, justice can become so twisted by the legal process that worse offenders sometimes end up with more lenient punishments than the lesser offenders they agree to testify against. This article from the Wall Street Journal documents cases in which jurors sent a message with their Not Guilty votes to prosecutors allowing worse offenders to exchange testimony against lesser alleged offenders for leniency in their penalties.

Prosecutors Using Cooperating Witnesses to Convict Defendants Accused of Lesser Charges

In the recent Brooklyn cases, the government used cooperators to “testify down,” as one defense attorney put it. Prosecutors ultimately walked away with mixed results.

In the alleged bribery trial, the heart of the government’s case was a charge that Brooklyn real-estate developer Stevenson Dunn and his business partners, lawyers Lee Hymowitz and Michael Freeman, solicited a $450,000 bribe from contractor Bogdan “Bob” Starzecki in connection with one of their city Department of Housing Preservation and Development low-income housing projects.

Mr. Starzecki, who testified he paid out millions of dollars in bribes to obtain contracts, was one of the government’s key witnesses. His attorney didn’t return requests for comment. His admitted crimes are punishable by up to 140 years in prison, a prosecutor said during the trial.

Wendell Walters, a former assistant commissioner at the housing agency who testified he received approximately $2.5 million worth of bribes over a decade in exchange for city contracts, also cooperated with the government. Mr. Walters became the highest-ranking city official convicted during the 12-year Bloomberg administration.

Mr. Walters testified that Mr. Dunn provided a single $5,000 bribe to him and that he had almost no dealings with Messrs. Hymowitz or Freeman. Lawyers for the defendants contended that all the money was for legitimate business transactions.

The jury acquitted Messrs. Dunn, Hymowitz and Freeman of 35 charges. After the verdict, many jurors waited outside the courthouse to congratulate the defendants and their attorneys.

Reportedly, Starzecki led investigators to Walters, who was accused of more serious offenses, but Walters apparently has not helped take down anyone above him.

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