Friday, November 4, 2016

Bridgegate: Out of public eye, a defense push for mistrial

Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni outside federal court on  Nov. 3, 2016 (Mitsu Yasukawa/ Record photo)

The jury in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure trial deliberated a fourth day without a verdict Thursday as defense lawyers privately sought to persuade the judge to declare a mistrial, deepening the mystery of one of the most high-profile criminal cases in recent memory.


Dustin Racioppi reports for The Record:

The reason for the mistrial request was unclear because the four-page letter sent to Judge Susan D. Wigenton was mostly blacked out. Hours after the request was filed, lawyers for a group of media outlets, including Gannett, which publishes The Record, asked Wigenton to release the letter as well as sealed documents in the case.




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Wigenton did not respond to that motion for the full mistrial but did seal closed-door proceedings from Wednesday because their “disclosure may complicate the court’s efforts to ensure a fair trial,” she wrote.

Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni – two former associates of Governor Christie — are fighting charges they worked together to close access lanes to the bridge to punish Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, for not endorsing Christie for reelection in 2013. Baroni was the deputy executive director of the Port Authority and Kelly was a deputy chief of staff to Christie at the time. Another former Port Authority official, David Wildstein, has pleaded guilty.

Lawyers met several times in Wigenton’s courtroom Wednesday behind locked doors and declined to comment to reporters who were camped out in the hallway, attempting to get information on the trial’s developments. But Wigenton ordered transcripts of the discussions sealed.

Bruce Rosen, an attorney for the media outlets, asked the judge in a Thursday filing to either open the court or give specific reasons for sealing documents and locking the courtroom.

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“This is one of the highest-profile trials of public officials in state history and it continues to draw national attention. It is essential to public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system that the public be able to fully understand and discuss the issues at stake as to conduct of this trial,” wrote Rosen, of the Florham Park firm McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli. “This prosecution and the issues involving allegations of public corruption are at the very core of the First Amendment and the public is entitled to be fully informed.”


Bone of contention

The punishment of Sokolich was the backbone of the case against Kelly and Baroni but is now the bone of contention in the trial. Siding with the prosecution earlier in the week, Wigenton instructed the jury that Kelly and Baroni did not have to intentionally punish Sokolich to be found guilty of conspiracy. They are charged with seven counts each of conspiracy, wire fraud and civil rights violations.

Wigenton’s decision would “eviscerate” the defense’s case because “punishment is the key,” said Michael Critchley, the lead attorney for Kelly. Critchley and Baroni’s lead attorney, Michael Baldassare, filed a joint motion Wednesday asking Wigenton to reinstruct the jury and include language of retribution against Sokolich in the conspiracy charges. She denied the request Thursday.

Critchley and Baldassare then tried a new approach. They filed a joint request asking Wigenton to instruct the jury to disregard evidence related to Steven Fulop, the Democratic mayor of Jersey City who was allegedly punished in 2013 for not endorsing Christie.

“The Fulop evidence was admitted to support the now abandoned prosecution theory of punishment of Mayor Sokolich,” Baldassare wrote. “Because punishment is no longer an issue – according to the court and the prosecution – the jury should be instructed to disregard the Fulop evidence. It is no longer relevant or useful in any way and, in fact, can only serve to unfairly prejudice the defendants.”
Wigenton did not respond to that request Thursday.

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