Jurors who acquitted Traffic Court judges reflect

"As far as I'm concerned, I was indicted for just doing my job." - Judge Michael Sullivan, leaving court June 23
"As far as I'm concerned, I was indicted for just doing my job." - Judge Michael Sullivan, leaving court June 23
Posted: August 11, 2014

They sat in silent judgment for nearly two months as federal prosecutors laid bare one of the city's long-standing bastions of cronyism.

But after acquitting five former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges accused in a wide-ranging, ticket-fixing conspiracy three weeks ago, the jurors who decided their fate want to make one thing absolutely clear:

"We hated to see those guys walk," said Mark Nagle, 57, an electronics technician known in court as Juror No. 12. "There was ticket fixing going on, and the judges knew what they were doing was wrong."

Since delivering their verdict to U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel last month, several of the jurors said in interviews they had struggled with how the decision they made had been received.

Some expressed concern that the public and even the defendants themselves had misread their conclusion.

Indeed, many of the accused claimed "complete vindication" after the panel of seven men and five women acquitted Judges Michael Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary, and Thomasine Tynes on charges of conspiracy and mail and wire fraud.

"As far as I'm concerned, I was indicted for just doing my job," Sullivan said as he rushed from the courthouse June 23.

Singletary, a West Philadelphia pastor, thanked God for his intervention in the case despite the fact that jurors convicted him, Lowry, Tynes, and Mulgrew on lesser charges of perjury for lying to the FBI.

Kathryn Lund, 47, known as Juror No. 5, could not muster Singletary's enthusiasm as she discussed the verdict last week. Still, she said, she felt she and her fellow jurors had ultimately made the right decision.

"I was really afraid they would read our not-guilty verdicts as, 'You guys didn't do anything wrong,' " she said. "Clearly, they skirted the law, and, clearly, they tried to cover up what was going on."

The gap between her feelings and her verdict came down to how the government built the case, she said.

Throughout the two-month trial, prosecutors painted Traffic Court as a judicial system tainted by rampant corruption where favors were routinely doled out to friends, family, and political allies.

Dozens of government witnesses, ranging from ticketholders to court employees took the stand and described a system in which the judges passed requests for "consideration" between chambers that more often than not ended with dismissal of a ticket.

But despite a years-long investigation, the government found no proof any of the judges who took their cases to trial had ever accepted a bribe to sway their rulings.

Without such evidence, prosecutors could not build a case around counts of honest-services fraud - the federal charge most often used in public corruption cases that requires proof of a quid pro quo.

Instead, they pursued the unusual legal theory that because the fines attached to dismissed tickets went unpaid, the judges had committed mail and wire fraud in an intentional effort to deprive the city and state of money.

For jurors like Lund, that argument just didn't add up.

"The charges didn't quite fit," she said. "The idea that they were willfully defrauding the government didn't seem to be their intent."

But the judges and their defense team had no such insight into the panel's thinking as jurors began deliberations June 22.

For a day and a half, the lawyers milled around outside the locked jury room, wondering whether their varying arguments had done enough to deflate the government's case.

Throughout the trial, they argued that their clients treated everyone the same and that the 50 tickets singled out by prosecutors were faulty and deserved to be tossed.

Some, including Singletary's lawyer, William Brennan, adopted a riskier strategy that ultimately came closer to the conclusion the jurors reached on their own.

"The system in Philadelphia may stink, but that's the way it is," he said during his closing argument to the panel. "Maybe everything wasn't perfect ethically, but it's not a federal crime."

But during the day and a half that jurors remained behind closed doors, some members of the defense team quietly began to wonder whether the panel's makeup might determine the outcome.

Only two jurors - retirees Leroy Clark Sr., 84, and Juanona Martinez, 68 - hailed from Philadelphia. The rest were drawn from a geographic area stretching from the suburbs to farther north.

Jury forewoman Christine Arnold is from Lancaster County. She led a group that ranged in age from 24 to 84 and held jobs in industries as varied as landscaping and aviation.

As the defense thinking went, the largely suburban jury might be less willing to swallow Philadelphia's melding of patronage politics and bureaucracy that many city residents accept with a shrug.

In the jury room, those geographic differences did appear to divide the panel's interpretation of the testimony.

"I thought what went on there was one person helping out another," said Martinez, a lifelong city resident. "It wasn't about defrauding the government. It was about doing favors."

Lund, on the other hand, left court each day shaking her head all the way back to her home in Delaware County.

"I was shocked at the Philadelphia system - how pervasive this seemed to be and how many people had no sense that anything they were doing was wrong," she said. "I don't know what this says about how things are run in Philadelphia, but it's just a little sad."

From the moment they began their deliberations, however, the direction their conversation was headed in became clear, both women said.

"Most of the jury was in accord relatively quickly," said Nagle. "There were one or two holdouts."

Lund admitted she was one of them.

"I sat through the trial thinking, 'Guilty,' " she said. Only after hearing the judge's instructions on the elements needed for a conviction did she begin to change her mind.

Others, who asked not to be named, said they briefly considered convicting the judges, feeling strongly that all should be removed from the bench.

"I didn't sleep between when we got the case and when it was done," Lund said. "I just kept turning it over in my head."

She found some solace, however, in reading up on the case after her jury service. The acquittal, she learned, did not mean the judges would automatically return to the bench.

Pennsylvania lawmakers abolished Traffic Court as a result of the federal investigation and have since completely rebuilt the city's system for handling traffic citations.

Some of the judges, she learned, would face justice in separate cases that were kept from the jurors during the trial.

Mulgrew, for instance, was sentenced Wednesday to 21/2 years in federal prison for embezzling state grant money from a South Philadelphia nonprofit.

Singletary was removed from the bench well before his arrest after racking up a string of reprimands from the state judicial conduct board, including one in 2012 for showing a photo of his genitals to a court employee.

"Clearly, they never should have held that office," Lund said. "I was glad to learn others had seen that despite how our case turned out."

For Nagle, the fact that the verdict sat so uncomfortably with observers outside the courtroom speaks to the seriousness with which he and his colleagues took their responsibility to the law.

"We were anxious to get it right," he said. "Hopefully, we did."


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649 @jeremyrroebuck

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|