The Impossible Victory

The feds spent years building their case against drug kingpins Willy Falc centsn and Sal Maglutaa. Life in prison was assured. Too bad the jury didn't see it that way.

Overall, however, the jurors felt that the government had not made its case, and they adopted many of the defense attorneys' arguments. "The prosecution presented so many witnesses we got inundated with evidence, but it wasn't good evidence," the foreman explains. "It was just a whole bunch of stuff thrown at us about things that didn't make sense, or was inconsistent with other pieces of evidence."

On the second day of deliberations, tensions among the jurors became more pronounced as they began to scrutinize and debate the evidence more thoroughly. It also became clear that several jurors were regretting their decision to be sequestered. Nathaniel Scippio, the oldest juror on the panel, suffered a diabetic seizure owing to the stress.

As paramedics tended to Scippio, Judge Moreno convened an emergency conference with prosecutors and defense attorneys to determine whether they should release him from the jury. Scippio had told the judge he wanted to remain, and prosecutors felt he should be allowed to do so. But defense attorneys, particularly Krieger, argued he should be excused. Noting that he was familiar with diabetes because his family suffered from a history of the disease, Krieger said it would be reckless to place the man in any additional danger. Judge Moreno agreed.

Krieger did not mention that he was pleased to be rid of Scippio, particularly since the remaining alternate juror was a young Hispanic woman who defense attorneys believed would be more sympathetic to their clients. "We liked her better," Krieger now admits.

Those instincts proved fateful. Scippio, it turns out, had been one of the few jurors who believed there was enough evidence to convict. Injecting racial considerations into the deliberations, Scippio, who is black, told the others he thought it was wrong that kingpins such as Falc centsn and Magluta might go free while so many young blacks, who cannot afford high-powered attorneys, go to prison for dealing relatively small amounts of crack.

But the alternate juror who replaced Scippio had a completely different outlook on the case. According to the foreman, she told her fellow jurors she didn't trust any of the witnesses. She didn't even trust the attorneys -- and that went for both prosecutors and defense counsel. As a result she was inclined to vote not guilty. By Thursday afternoon the jury had decided to acquit Falc centsn and Magluta on five of the sixteen counts. They would deal with the remaining charges the next day.

Three jurors -- two men and a woman -- wanted to hang tough on the remaining eleven counts and vote guilty. For several hours the group argued. By early Friday afternoon they believed they were hopelessly deadlocked and sent a note to the judge. A short time later Moreno met with the jury members and gently admonished them. He warned that he was going to keep them working all weekend and into the next week if necessary.

When deliberations resumed, the female juror among the three pushing for conviction broke down in tears and announced that her father was in the hospital dying of cancer. She had to see him and couldn't remain sequestered any longer. Recounting her experience, the juror, who asked that her name not be used in this article, says she was emotionally drained and exhausted. She began to have doubts about the evidence and changed her vote from guilty to not guilty on the remaining counts. "We felt like prisoners," she says now. "I'm happy it's over."

Soon the vote was eleven to one for acquittal. The final holdout was a young man who normally works nights but had been unable to do because of the sequestration. Finally he relented as well. "Sign the damn papers," he told the foreman, referring to the verdict forms that would read not guilty.

Friday at 6:30 p.m. the jury sent a note to Judge Moreno saying they had reached a verdict. Calls immediately went out to the prosecutors and defense attorneys. While waiting for everyone to return to the courtroom, the jurors remained silent. "Everything was quiet," the foreman recalls. "Everybody just sat there without saying a word."

As the verdict was announced, the foreman observed the reaction of Christopher Clark and his fellow prosecutors, who stared at the jurors in amazement. "They way they looked at us," the foreman says, "it was as if we were guilty."

"If we weren't sequestered, we probably would have stayed divided forever," says the female juror, whose father died five days after the verdict. It never occurred to her to ask the judge to excuse her because of her father's illness. She says she felt it was her obligation to stay until a decision was reached.

In the days following the verdict, the foreman says he and other jurors became the objects of harassment and ridicule from friends and co-workers. "People keep asking me, 'How could you put those guys on the street?'" the foreman recounts. "I don't know, maybe I did put two guys on the street who don't belong there. I don't feel good about that, but we went by what the government put in front of us. And that's all we could do."

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