Jurors’ Questions Hint at Division in Trial on Lane Closings
NEWARK — Jurors deliberating the fate of two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey accused in a bizarre plot to close lanes at the George Washington Bridge sent back three questions on Tuesday hinting that they may be divided.
Lawyers for the defense responded angrily to the judge’s response to one question, arguing that it was a bait and switch on the original charges.
“By answering the way you’re answering, you’re directing a verdict of guilty,” Michael Critchley, a lawyer for Bridget Anne Kelly, told the judge.
The question, on the first full day of jury deliberations after a six-week trial, reflected a heated debate between the prosecution and the defense over just what the defendants are charged with.
The indictment in the case, in May 2015, explicitly charged the defendants with conspiring to misuse the resources of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, “to facilitate and conceal the causing of traffic problems in Fort Lee as punishment” of Mayor Mark J. Sokolich, a Democrat who had declined to endorse Mr. Christie, a Republican, for re-election.
But last week, as Judge Susan D. Wigenton was preparing instructions to the jury in federal court, prosecutors argued that the charge was simply misusing the resources of the agency. The judge sided with them, and the jury instructions make almost no mention of punishment, saying only that jurors have to decide whether the defendants conspired to misuse Port Authority resources.
In a note on Tuesday, jurors asked the judge if the defendants could be found guilty of conspiracy if the act — closing the lanes — had not been “intentionally punitive” toward Mr. Sokolich, whose town was effectively shut down by catastrophic traffic jams over five days in September 2013.
During the trial, prosecutors had spent much time arguing that Ms. Kelly and the other defendant, Bill Baroni, had punished the mayor for not endorsing Mr. Christie.
“The government has opened, closed, always presented this as a punishment case,” Michael Baldassare, a lawyer for Mr. Baroni, argued to the judge in response to the jury’s question.
David Feder, an assistant United States attorney, argued that punishment was the defendants’ motive, but that the government was not required to prove motive to establish guilt.
The judge agreed, much to the defense’s displeasure.
The next question suggested a split on two of the nine charges. Count 1 charges the defendants with conspiring to misuse the resources of the Port Authority. Count 2 charges them with actually misusing the resources.
The jury wondered if it could find the defendants guilty of Count 2 if it had not found them guilty of Count 1. In other words, did the defendants have to be found guilty of conspiracy to be found guilty of committing the act?
The judge responded no, that jurors should consider each charge individually.
Earlier in the day, the jury sent a question wondering about the star witness in the case, David Wildstein, whose credibility defense lawyers had savaged in their closing arguments.
Mr. Wildstein, by his own admission an inveterate prankster and liar, operated as Mr. Christie’s enforcer at the Port Authority, and has pleaded guilty to orchestrating the lane closings.
In his final argument on Friday, Mr. Baldassare had checked off the multiple times Mr. Wildstein met with federal prosecutors, suggesting that they were coaching him on how to lie.
A question on Tuesday suggested that jurors were wondering about those meetings. They asked if it was legal for the government to meet with Mr. Wildstein without the defendants’ knowledge or legal representation.
Judge Wigenton answered that it was.
The jury is to resume deliberations on Wednesday morning.
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