Appeals Court Overturns Elizabeth Chagra’s Conspiracy Conviction
NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ After Elizabeth Chagra’s conviction on charges she plotted a federal judge’s assassination was overturned, her lawyer predicted she may win her freedom soon because the government might want to avoid another costly trial.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that her conviction cannot stand because a jury was instructed improperly by the presiding judge concerning what it would have to conclude to find her guilty.
The three-judge panel let stand the murder conviction of Charles Harrelson, who pulled the trigger to kill Judge John H. Wood Jr. outside his San Antonio, Texas, condominium in 1979.
The appeals court also left intact Mrs. Chagra’s conviction of tax fraud and conspiring to obstruct justice in the investigation into Wood’s death, which resulted in a five-year prison term as part of her 30-year sentence. The court also upheld the conviction of Harrelson’s wife, Jo Ann, for conspiring to obstruct justice.
″I am hopeful, I really, really am, that this time around, everything will be straightened out,″ Mrs. Chagra, 31, said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press from the federal women’s prison in Alderson, W.Va.
Galveston lawyer Warren Burnett said he has ″no idea when (a new trial might be conducted for Mrs. Chagra) or whether the government would want to go to the millions of dollars of expense to do that.″
In the meantime, he told the El Paso Times, he will try to win her release on bail ″now that she’s been locked away from her children for almost three years.″
Burnett said his client probably has served enough time already to win parole for the convictions on lesser charges.
U.S. Attorney Helen Eversberg, whose jurisdiction includes San Antonio and El Paso, said she was ″very pleased with the affirmed conviction of the hit man, Mr. Harrelson″ but unsure whether the government will seek another trial for Chagra.
Mrs. Chagra’s husband Jimmy was acquitted in a separate trial of charges he paid Harrelson $250,000 to kill Wood, known as ″Maximum John″ for the stiff sentences he dealt drug dealers. Chagra was convicted, however, of conspiring to obstruct the investigation.
Wood was killed by a single shot to the back from a high-powered rifle on May 29, 1979, shortly before he was scheduled to preside over the Chagra’s drug smuggling trial. The indictment said Chagra feared Wood would sentence him to life in prison on a criminal enterprise charge.
The murder, the only killing of a federal judge this century, spawned the largest federal investigation since the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.