December 11, 2009 | 12:52pm
A Miami-Dade jury has convicted Liberty City pastor Gaston Smith on one count of grand
theft for looting more than $10,000 in grant money intended to help the poor.
Yesterday, Banana Republican caught the tail end of closing arguments by Smith's defense lawyer Larry Handfield and prosecutor Richard Scruggs
. Both lawyers made strong forceful comments.
It came down to whether jurors bought Handfield's assertion Smith was not required to keep the taxpayer funds in the bank or account for his expenditures. Or will they accept Scruggs's point that the money trail clearly shows Smith willfully took the government cash for himself? The jurors believed the prosecutor.
As his client sat at the defense table reading from a book of Psalms, Handfield began his speech by pouring water half-way into a plastic cup. "Mr. Scruggs sees this as half-empty," Handfield intoned. "This case is not about his assumptions. This case is not about his opinion. This case is based on the lack of evidence."
Handfield replied Smith was innocent because the county agency that gave him the money never went after the clergyman for misspending the funds. Nor did the regulators report him to law enforcement officials. He accused Scruggs of falsely accusing Smith based on suspicions.
"When you have blinders on, you disregard any evidence that gives this man - this man of God - the benefit of the doubt," Handfield said as he pointed to his client. "One thing we human beings are guilty of - we rush to judgment. People can see the same thing and have a different interpretation. They believe the pastor is guilty, but they did not bring the evidence."
Handfield ended his statment by wishing the jury Godspeed in deliberations. Ironic, really.
Scruggs closed by noting the defense had promised to show the jurors how the pastor had worked hard to bring economic prosperity to Liberty City through his non-profit agency Friends of MLK, which received the county grant. "We didn't hear that," Scruggs said. "Instead, what you heard was blame of someone else. That's what people do when they are guilty. Blame everybody else."
Then Scruggs laid out the crime pretty succinctly. "How difficult is it to put down on a piece of paper I got $25,000 and this is how I spent it?" the prosecutor said. "It was not accounted for. That is theft. How do you avoid that unfortunate, uncomfortable truth?"
As he ended his argument, Scruggs picked up the plastic cup Handfield had used earlier. This time there was no water in it. "Mr. Handfield used the cup to say the state saw it as half-empty," Scruggs said. "I beg to differ. The evidence shows this cup is empty. Why is it empty ? Because [Smith] stole everything that was in it."