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Juror Gives Thumbs Down Signal, Puzzles Defendants and Observers

December 15, 1985

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A juror in Gov. Edwin Edwards’ federal racketeering trial flashed a thumbs- down sign at television cameras Saturday, prompting defense attorneys to demand that he be thrown off the panel.

U.S. District Judge Marcel Livaudais said he would hear arguments on the motion Monday. The jury quit deliberating Saturday without reaching a verdict. No deliberations are scheduled Sunday.

Juror Clifford West made the gesture as he climbed aboard a van that took jurors from their hotel to the courthouse to begin the fourth day of deliberations in the trial of the governor, his brother and three other people.

Livaudais told lawyers in a hearing that he had seen a videotape of jurors leaving the hotel, but he did not comment on it.

James Neal, chief defense attorney, asked for time to prepare full arguments on his motion. A juror can be removed ″for just cause,″ including erratic behavior, the motion said.

U.S. Attorney John Volz said he does not expect West to be removed. Volz had fought a delay in the ruling.

″Frankly, the motion is so baseless and groundless, it shouldn’t take too long to dispose of it,″ he told the judge.

West, 31, an unemployed electrician from New Orleans, had observers and anxious defendants speculating all day about what the gesture meant.

Volz and Neal had said earlier it was impossible to know what West meant.

″We’re paying more attention to this jury than has ever been paid to any jury in this city that I can recall,″ Volz said.

Camille Gravel, another of Edwards’ lawyers, said, ″I saw it and Mr. Neal saw it and we discussed it with the governor and he didn’t have any specific reaction to it. But he said, ‘Do whatever you think should be done.’

″We made the motion because we think there might be some rights, at this time, that we want to protect.″

It was the second time West had given lawyers and other observers cause for speculation. He was the only juror, other than foreman James Naquin, who had sent a note regarding questions of procedure to Livaudais.

Jurors, who began deliberations Wednesday morning, would be given a free day Sunday if a verdict was not reached on Saturday, court officials said.

Edwards, his brother Marion, and their business associates - Ronald Falgout, James Wyllie Jr. and Gus Mijalis - are accused of abusing their political power in a $10 million hospital investment scam.

The 13-week-old trial was highlighted by Edwards’ own testimony, which included two days of intense cross-examination by Volz.

Each defendant was charged with violating the conspiracy section of the complicated federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization act.

All but Mijalis also faced 49 counts of mail and wire fraud. Mijalis was charged with three counts of mail fraud.

Before the case went to the jury, Livaudais dismissed charges against three other defendants, including Edwards’ nephew Charles Isbell.

The indictment accused the defendants of scheming to illegally obtain state certification for hospital and nursing home projects in which they held interests.

Edwards acknowledged that before he took office in March 1984 he made almost $2 million on the deals, which he insisted were legal. He said he broke ties with the venture when he became governor.

Prosecutors said his $2 million profit constituted a bribe from Wyllie and Falgout.

None of the more than 70 witnesses said Edwards conspired with the others. But they testified that Edwards, after he took office, approved or had a role in approving projects owned by Wyllie and Falgout.

Defense lawyers said the nursing homes and hospitals were needed in the areas for which they were approved.

Each RICO count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, a $25,000 fine and forfeiture of all property acquired in the criminal enterprise. Each mail and wire fraud count carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Gov. Edwards was the only defendant who didn’t show up at the courthouse. He said Wednesday he would remain in New Orleans while awaiting the verdict and would hold a news conference soon after one is reached.

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