Friday, October 28, 2016

Bridgegate: Closing arguments expected today

Prosecutors are expected to begin closing arguments today at the finale of the federal trial of two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie accused of closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge to exact revenge on a political rival.

The Asbury Park Press's Paul Berger and Peter J. Sampson report

The closing arguments, coming at the end of a six-week trial in Newark, were unexpectedly delayed Thursday morning when U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton sent the jury home citing “legal issues.”

NJTV NEWS correspondent Michael Aron's trial update above

Prosecutors and defense lawyers declined to explain the reason for the delay. But the trial, which has run smoothly and with few delays, appears to be headed towards a bumpy denouement.

During a closed-door conference on Tuesday, where lawyers hammered out language for the judge’s instructions to the jury, defense lawyers strongly objected when Wigenton decided that prosecutors do not need to prove that Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni closed the bridge access lanes with the intention of punishing the mayor of Fort Lee.

Instead, Wigenton said that prosecutors must prove only that the pair deliberately misused the bridge, which is owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Defense lawyers argued that such an instruction fundamentally changed the nature of the charges against their clients.

The punitive nature of the closures was a central theme of the government’s indictment of Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and of Baroni, the governor’s former top executive appointee at the Port Authority.

Although the trial elicited plenty of evidence and testimony that Christie’s allies bullied or punished perceived enemies, prosecutors provided little evidence that Christie’s staff saw Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, as someone who deserved such treatment.

“I thought I was defending a charge that at its core, beginning to end, was an allegation that Bridget Kelly and Mr. Baroni entered into activity to intentionally punish Mayor Sokolich for not endorsing,” Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, told Wigenton, according to a transcript of the conference.
“I thought that’s what we were doing for the last six weeks,” Critchley added. “Now, I don’t know what I’m defending.”
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Critchley and Jennifer Mara, an attorney for Baroni, repeated that objection, as well as others, on Wednesday after the judge read the instructions to the jury.
Such objections could be used as the basis for an appeal, should one or both of the defendants be found guilty.

One veteran criminal defense lawyer contacted by The Record on Thursday, Joseph Hayden, of Hackensack, agreed with the defense.

“I think it’s a substantial legal issue,” Hayden said. “There is a body of law that prosecutors need not prove the motive of a defendant, but here it is the spine of all the charges.”

In essence, Hayden said, prosecutors have amended the indictment to redraw what they have to prove to the jury.

But five other defense attorneys and former prosecutors said Wigenton was correct to remove the motive for the lane closures from the jury instructions.

“It goes against everything we all see on TV, which is that motive is all people talk about,” said Dan Wenner, a partner at Day Pitney in Connecticut. “But in most cases, motive is not an element of the offense.”

The lawyers explained that the reason why someone broke the law is not central to the jury’s duty, which is to decide whether someone broke the law.
But they also agreed that the motive for the alleged crime is likely to be a central issue for prosecution and defense during closing arguments.

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