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Monday, October 10, 2005  

Commentary: Jurors key to DeLay's fate

Some friends are disappointed that I don't respond in kind to their glee about the indictments of until recently House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sweetwater, Texas). It is not that I don't believe that DeLay is as crooked as the day is long. I do. But, an indictment is an indictment and a conviction is a conviction. Travis County Prosecutor Ronnie Earle's indictments of DeLay will not necessarily result in convictions. I say that based on my take on what a powerful Republican like DeLay can expect from a Republican jury in his neck of the woods. If the cases even make it to trial, DeLay will be judged by the people who have sent him to Congress time and again. The people who applaud his manipulation of redistricting to increase the number of Republicans from Texas there. The people who recall him fondly as "Hot Tub Tom," a happy-go-lucky Everyman that Middle America can relate to.

Nor to do I see the evidence as slam dunk. I can envision a simple scenario that would result in acquittals. All it would take is a few simpletons on the jury. As you know, the facts of the case turn on the providence of a check for $190,000 written in 2002. DeLay's political action committee sent the check, which was backed by corporate donations, to the Republican National Committee. Under election law, the funds could not be spent on or by Texas Republicans. Almost simultaneously with the donation of the check for $190,000 to the RNC, several GOP candidates from Texas received donations from the RNC that happened to amount to, you guessed it, $190,000.

The Washington Post has reported the specifics.

Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) met for at least 30 minutes with the top fundraiser of his Texas political action committee on Oct. 2, 2002, the same day that the Republican National Committee in Washington set in motion a series of financial transactions at the heart of the money-laundering and conspiracy case against DeLay.

During the meeting at his Capitol office, DeLay conferred with James W. Ellis, the head of his principal fundraising committee in Washington and his chief fundraiser in Texas. Ellis had earlier given the Republican National Committee a check for $190,000 drawn mostly from corporate contributions. The same day as the meeting, the RNC ordered $190,000 worth of checks sent to seven Republican legislative candidates in Texas.

In the past two weeks, two separate Texas grand juries have returned indictments against DeLay, Ellis and a political associate alleging that these transactions amounted to money laundering intended to circumvent a Texas campaign law barring the use of corporate funds for state election purposes. The aim of the alleged scheme was to ensure that Republicans gain control of the Texas House, and thus reorder the state's congressional districts in a manner favoring the election of more Republicans to Congress.

Back to our hypothetical jury. Let's cut to the chase. The jurors are convened. They have transcripts of testimony, bank records and printouts of telephone conversations among DeLay and his associates before them. But, that is not what is being discussed. Three stubborn jurors are taking turns making the same point over and over again. The money sent to the candidates for the GOP was not the same money as the check for $190,000, they say. It was different money, so DeLay and the other defendants engaged in no wrongdoing. Nothing the other jurors say can sway them. They are confused by the breaking down of the sum into separate checks of varying amounts. (But totaling $190,000.) The only way they would convict is if the check returned to Texas was for $190,000. That's stupid, you say. I agree. But, many a criminal case turns on convincing simpleton jurors despite the difficulty they have grasping simple facts.

In novelist Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the hero, defense attorney Atticus Finch, says in summation:

I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system -- that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.

I hope that Earle's prosecution is successful, or, second best, acquittals occur for reasons less puerile than the scenario I've described. But, the limitations of jurors, and thus courts, may allow Tom DeLay to walk away from prosecution with his reputation under his other nickname, "Teflon Tom," intact.

7:45 AM