Several jurors were reluctant to convict DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis on corruption charges because they feared sending the likeable father of twins to prison, the jury’s forewoman said in an interview Wednesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“People were worried about ruining his life,” said jury forewoman Susan Worthy, a day after a mistrial was declared in the case. “They all talked about how they prayed for him and his family or were losing sleep or they didn’t want to see him go to jail for that period of time. Some of us realized that was not our charge.”
Worthy’s recollection of jury deliberations provided the most detailed account yet of what the deeply divided panel considered as they held Ellis’ fate in their hands. Jurors were instructed multiple times to put their personal biases aside and make decisions based solely on the evidence presented.
But according to Worthy, jurors were influenced by Ellis’ credibility as a witness, distrust of an informant who spied on Ellis and the possibility that Ellis, an attorney and Ivy League graduate, could be sentenced to years in prison.
Though Worthy said she thought Ellis was guilty on all 13 charges against him, the all-female jury couldn’t unanimously agree on any of the counts after 11 days of deliberations and Judge Courtney Johnson declared a mistrial Tuesday.
District Attorney Robert James, who remains under a gag order, hasn’t said whether he will seek a retrial. Ellis remains suspended from office and under indictment.
Ellis is accused of strong-arming vendors for contributions to his 2012 re-election campaign. Prosecutors said he would tell aides to withhold county work when vendors didn’t return his campaign solicitation calls, claiming that they were not being responsive to a government that paid them well.
“Some of us tried to argue the law and how we felt he broke the law when he mixed county business with the calls for campaign contributions,” said Worthy, a 49-year-old health care analyst. “People didn’t view that as a threat and felt he could do that.”
The jury came close to agreeing on guilty verdicts on three extortion charges, she said.
Jurors were split 11-1 on a charge involving DeKalb-based National Property Institute, which was under contract with the county to rehab foreclosed homes, and 10-2 on two counts involving Power and Energy Services, an Austell company that maintained county generators.
The owners of National Property Institute were called to a meeting with Ellis to discuss why they wouldn’t return his campaign calls, and they testified they felt they would lose their contract unless they contributed $2,500 to his campaign. The company made the donation and kept getting work.
“(The dissenting juror’s) argument was people should have good customer service,” Worthy said.
Eight jurors believed Ellis was guilty of perjury for lying to a special purpose grand jury. Eight jurors also thought he was not guilty of two counts of extortion involving Ciber Inc., which offered technology consulting to the county.
“At one point we thought we had a unanimous agreement on acquittal but people were changing their votes back and forth,” Worthy said of Ciber. Most jurors thought it was a matter of “she said, he said.”
Former DeKalb Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton, the government employee who turned against Ellis to save himself from facing criminal charges, damaged prosecutors’ efforts to convict Ellis, Worthy said.
Using a hidden recorder, Walton covertly gathered Ellis’ conversations in which he discussed campaign fundraising and county contractors. Walton, who is now under federal investigation, worked for prosecutors when they threatened to charge him with perjury for lying under oath to a special grand jury.
“Any time he was involved it wasn’t favorable,” Worthy said. “He led Ellis. He was leading, instigating the situation.”
On the recordings, Walton offered to cut off contractors who didn’t answer Ellis’ phone calls soliciting campaign contributions.
“One juror in particular felt it was illegal to record people unknowingly,” Worthy said.
Though that juror was eventually convinced that the secret recordings were lawful, “she still thought it was unfair.”
In comparison, jurors were impressed by Ellis.
“Ellis is very articulate, charismatic,” Worthy said. “He looked at the jurors. He was very believable.”
But the recordings bothered her, and she found it impossible to believe Ellis when he testified, she said.
“After listening to the tapes, his testimony wasn’t enough to help me change my mind,” she said. “The recordings had (Ellis) saying ‘dry them up. Let the contract expire. Put a note in their file.’ You can’t take that back.”
Trisha Renaud, a trial and jury consultant, said jurors probably relied on their life experiences to make judgments about Ellis and Walton.
“When you have an articulate defendant who takes the stand and seems to make a connection with some of the jurors, and then you have a government witness who they don’t like, then it’s not surprising that they had difficulty in reaching a verdict,” she said.
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