Sen. Stevens's testimony damaged his case, jurors say

On the stand, senator appeared to be evasive, arrogant and combative

Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008

WASHINGTON - The jurors had spent the better part of two days battling one of their own, Juror No. 9, who had refused to participate in deliberations. Several feared that they were headed for a hung jury, an ignominious end to the month-long corruption trial of Sen. Ted Stevens, one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress.

But when the jurors reconvened a few days later, it took them just hours to find Stevens guilty on all seven counts of lying on financial disclosure forms to hide more than $250,000 in gifts and renovations to his Girdwood house.

The jurors said they went from near-disaster to a quick verdict after they put their bickering aside and realized that prosecutors had presented an overwhelming case. Stevens, they said, did himself no favors by taking the stand, where he destroyed the grandfatherly image his lawyers had carefully crafted.

For most of the trial, the 84-year-old senator sat hunched over the defense table listening to testimony through court-issued headphones. He fit the part, some jurors said, of an elderly gentleman who left many of life's details - including his house renovations - to others.

But the jurors' empathy vanished the moment Stevens came under cross-examination. Stevens, the jurors said, came off as evasive, arrogant and combative, and his answers did not jibe with the evidence. He said one gift was a loan and that others were not gifts at all. He said he was not aware that work had been done on his house.

"He looked fragile for most of the trial, and then he testified, and, man, he became this lion," said Colleen Walsh, one of two jurors and two alternates interviewed about their experiences during the trial. "I thought, 'Wait a minute, if the defense is trying to portray this man as a sympathetic character who didn't know what was going on in his life, why did they put him on the stand and he could recall everything that happened except the gifts?' "

Two weeks after the jury returned its verdict, its ramifications still are not known. Stevens's lawyers are expected to file court documents seeking to overturn it, and U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has not set a sentencing date. Stevens faces as much as five years in prison on each count. Despite the trial, Stevens ran for a seventh full term and trails his Democratic opponent by 1,022 votes in the most recent tally.

The jurors said they are not surprised the senator garnered such support. Stevens is revered in Alaska, and testimony from high-profile figures such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell showed that Stevens is well-liked and respected, they said.

Prosecutor Brenda Morris, of the Justice Department's public integrity unit, opened the trial by pointing to evidence that Stevens lied on his financial disclosure forms to hide gifts and home renovations. Most of the work was financed by VECO, a now-defunct oil services company, and its powerful top executive, Bill Allen, a close friend of Stevens, Morris told the jurors.

Brendan Sullivan, Stevens's defense attorney, countered that Allen was a felon hoping to win leniency with his testimony. Stevens did not pay much attention to the renovation work, which was supervised by his wife, Catherine, and always paid bills he received, Sullivan said.

After VECO workers testified about helping to turn the modest cabin into a two-story house with a garage, whirlpool and two wraparound decks, the trial got interesting, jurors said.

That is when prosecutors introduced a stack of e-mails between Stevens and a family friend who monitored the renovations. The e-mails highlighted Allen's work and lauded the labor of VECO employees at the house, which Stevens and his wife call "the chalet." Jurors also saw handwritten notes from Stevens asking Allen for bills - letters that jurors said showed he knew VECO or Allen was paying for some of the remodeling work.

Prosecutors even played tape-recorded calls between Stevens and Allen. On one call, Stevens told Allen that the worst they could expect if convicted was a little jail time - a telling admission, two jurors said.

"The evidence - the calls, the e-mails, the notes - was strong, it was hard-core," said Brian Kirst, an alternate who did not deliberate but who discussed the verdict and deliberations with friends on the panel.

Then Stevens and his wife took the stand. Stevens's defense attorneys said Catherine Stevens had supervised the renovations. She testified that she monitored them, but Catherine Stevens did not obtain a contract with the company that she said did most of the work on the house. She also complained incessantly about the quality of the job. Jurors realized she was not closely supervising the project and ignored her testimony, which defense attorneys had deemed critical to their case.

She did not "get the memo about getting thrown under the bus," one juror said.

Ted Stevens was the defense's star witness. He testified in detail about growing up during the Great Depression, flying planes during World War II, and his work in the Senate. But he could not recall much about house renovations. Jurors said they did not believe his explanation that two VECO workers on the project were moonlighting for him or a contractor.

Then Morris hammered Stevens over the receipt of a $2,700 massage chair and other gifts. Stevens said the chair was just a loan, even though it had been in his Washington house for seven years. The jurors said they found it incredible that Stevens did not return items that he said he had not sought: furniture, a Viking grill, a first-floor deck and a fish statue.

And they noted how Morris pounded Stevens about not changing the locks on "the chalet" to prevent Allen from returning with more unwanted gifts.

"I really just wish he hadn't testified," Walsh said. "He didn't help his case at all."

By the time the four alternates were sent home and 12 jurors began deliberating, it was clear that they were in for trouble with Juror No. 9, two jurors said. She had already been prickly.

When they began to deliberate, she refused to participate, two jurors said. She began to yell and refused to listen to others. One juror said her colleague was probably frustrated at being cooped up so long in a trial and was not handling it well. One thought Juror No. 9 was experiencing nicotine withdrawal because of limited smoke breaks.

On Thursday, Oct. 23, the foreman sent the judge a note asking him to remove Juror No. 9. Sullivan refused and instead gave the jury what he called a "pep talk" about civility.

That night, the deliberations took another unusual turn that would result in the judge dismissing Juror No. 4, Marian Hinnant. Hinnant told the court that her father had died in California. She later admitted she was rushing out of town to attend the Breeders' Cup horse race. After a three-day weekend, Walsh was tapped to take Hinnant's place.

As the jurors settled around the rectangular table in jury room 4915, several noticed the atmosphere had changed. Even Juror No. 9 had a new attitude. "I prayed over this to God and asked him to help me calm down," she told her colleagues, according to two other jurors. Juror No. 9 declined to comment.

They each took a turn reading the indictment and went methodically over the evidence, said Walsh, who has begun writing about her experience at Mostly Walsh and Juror No. 9 asked questions, Walsh said, because the rest of the panel had gone through the documents and other material the previous week.

After several hours, they voted on the first count. It was the most complicated charge, which alleged that Stevens lied on his disclosure forms as part of a long-running scheme. The vote was unanimous, the jurors said.

In just under two hours, they convicted Stevens on the other counts. But the verdict did not ease all the tension. Juror No. 9 said she was leery about sending Stevens to prison.

"We told her that we couldn't worry about that," Walsh said. "We told her that was a problem for the judge."

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