DALLAS — In a dramatic reversal, a federal judge has thrown out bribery convictions for former Richardson mayor Laura Maczka and her developer husband after determining that a court security officer’s conversations with a holdout juror could have influenced the verdicts.
On March 7, jurors convicted Maczka of voting for Mark Jordan’s controversial apartment projects in exchange for cash, sex and luxury hotel stays. They faced up to 20 years in prison each. Maczka’s dealings with Jordan were detailed in a series of stories on WFAA-TV.
But on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant threw out the guilty verdicts.
He explained why in a lengthy ruling that centers on a distraught juror.
Joe Brown, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, which prosecuted the case, said he "disagrees" with Mazzant's ruling.
"The jury heard weeks of testimony, carefully deliberated, and found the defendants guilty," Brown said Thursday in a statement. "We think they got it right, and it was done fairly. The order for a new trial was based on reports from witnesses who we have not been able to talk to, or cross examine, or do any of the things that we typically do to test the accuracy of statements. What we do know from the witness statements does not seem like enough to overturn a carefully deliberated verdict.”
Defense lawyers lauded the judge's decision.
“Our courts are entrusted with the sacred responsibility of assuring that every person charged with a crime receives a fair trial," Fort Worth attorney Jeff Kearney said in a statement Thursday issued on behalf of both defendants.
"In a 22-page comprehensive, thoughtful, and well-reasoned written decision, Judge Mazzant ruled the jury’s verdicts were tainted by improper outside influences that deprived Laura and Mark Jordan of their constitutionally protected right to a fair trial," Kearney wrote. "We should all be thankful to have conscientious judges with the courage to correct an unjust result when the legal process is not fair. The Jordans look forward to having this matter resolved by a fair and impartial jury free from outside influence.”
In Thursday's ruling, Judge Mazzant wrote that during the deliberations, jurors sent him a note saying that one of them was “very upset” and was asking “to be excused.”
The judge asked the lawyers for the government and the defense what he should do. Both sides agreed he should talk to the juror, the judge wrote.
“The court then met with Juror No. 11 in chambers, with a law clerk and court reporter, and asked why she was unable to serve on the panel,” the judge wrote.
“Juror No. 11 responded that it was making her ‘sick to my stomach to convict them.’”
The judge told her “if your decision isn’t with the rest of the group, you should stand firm on what your convictions are.”
When the judge again consulted with the lawyers, prosecutors asked that the juror be removed. But “counsel for Mark Jordan insisted that she should continue deliberations, and counsel for Laura Jordan urged that a dismissal was warranted only if Juror No. 11 was found to be ‘incapacitated,’” the judge wrote.
Mazzant ultimately determined the juror should remain on the panel, and deliberations continued.
Later, it was discovered that a court security officer had also spoken to the distraught juror.
“The officer saw Juror No. 11 in tears,” the judge wrote. “Believing that she was struggling with how to cast her vote, he advised her to put her emotions aside, decide the case without considering the Jordans’ potential sentences, and vote only on whether she believed they were guilty or not.”
The jury reached guilty verdicts less than an hour later.
After the guilty verdicts, the judge writes, the defense lawyers became furious that the judge met with the juror.
“They fault the court for meeting with Juror No. 11 in chambers and not dismissing her from the panel—without referencing their encouragement of the meeting or their objections to excusing her,” the judge wrote.
“Any suggestion that defense counsel did not encourage the meetings with Juror No. 11 is simply dishonest,” the judge wrote.
The judge ultimately found that it was not his conversations with the juror that were problematic – it was the court security officer’s.
“The risk that the officer’s comments meaningfully contaminated jury deliberations appear to be quite serious,” the judge wrote. “Acting on its broad discretion, based on its experience presiding over eighty-six trials, the court concludes that the Jordans were denied the Sixth Amendment’s promise of a fair trial decided solely by a jury of their peers.”
Judge Mazzant sums up his decision with a quote from Spider-Man.
“[In] this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility,” the judge wrote.
A new trial is set for July 8 in Sherman.