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Espy Juror Says Case Was Unclear

December 4, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The prosecutor in the Mike Espy corruption trial failed to explain clearly what the former agriculture secretary had done wrong, a juror said Friday.

A federal jury on Wednesday cleared Espy of all 30 counts accusing him of taking illegal favors and gifts from companies he regulated, charges stemming from a four-year, $17 million investigation by Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz.

``I think what in the end was lacking was a key element or theory,″ said juror Barbara Bisoni, a 25-year-old accounting consultant.

The witnesses and evidence presented over seven weeks by Smaltz failed to show how a complicated and sometimes contradictory set of ethics laws applied to Espy, Ms. Bisoni said, leaving the jury confused about whether some charges even amounted to crimes.

For example, she said, documents the jury reviewed indicated some gifts were allowable if a public official reimbursed the giver. Yet Espy was charged with mail fraud for mailing a reimbursement for sports tickets.

``I don’t feel they completely met their burden of proof in showing that these things were wrong, or that Espy even knew″ what was legal and what was not, she said.

Espy’s lawyers, who presented no witnesses, never disputed that he took sports tickets and meals from several companies. But they claimed the gifts were all proper and that they never swayed Espy’s judgment.

Smaltz spokesman William Noakes, a deputy prosecutor, said, ``Based on the juror comments, I think we could have made it perhaps simpler and clearer, and perhaps made the case more concise for the jury.″

Other jurors could not be reached for comment Friday. The list of jurors’ names was sealed by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina.

Ms. Bisoni said an initial poll of jurors showed they agreed Espy was innocent of some charges. But jurors were ``about evenly split″ or confused on others, differences that were largely resolved by careful reading of the laws involved.

Race was not a factor, said Ms. Bisoni, the only white juror among 12.

``It was not an issue that was even mentioned or brought up during the deliberations,″ she said.

Espy was the nation’s first black agriculture secretary. Defense lawyers and several of Smaltz’s own witnesses referred during the trial to race and perceived prejudice at the Agriculture Department.

Smaltz complained about such references, and appealed directly to jurors not to let race play a role in their decision.

Ms. Bisoni said the jury was not overwhelmingly sympathetic to Espy, who was forced out of office in 1994 by the allegations of wrongdoing. Given a Cabinet secretary’s ethical obligations, Ms. Bisoni said, she thinks it perhaps proper that Espy lost his job.

Espy himself has acknowledged he was insensitive to ``the appearance of impropriety.″

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