The acquittal of Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small and five others in a voter-fraud trial this week was a huge loss to state prosecutors - and a possible path to freedom for the next six defendants who are expected to stand trial later this year.
Attorney General Paula Dow has been quiet about whether she will continue prosecuting the remaining defendants, who were separated due to courtroom constraints.
But, defense attorneys believe the state took its strongest case to court first - and lost after four months of testimony that sometimes turned comical, with one witness getting sick on the stand and another answering her cell phone in front of jurors.
Small and 13 others were indicted in September 2009 for allegedly mishandling ballots in that year's Democratic primary for Atlantic City mayor. Two men pleaded guilty, although one had his plea deal revoked after his testimony was cut short by the state because of his antics on the stand.
"The strongest case was against these six,", said Chris Hoffner, who defended Thomas Quirk in the recent trial. "And we saw how strong that was."
The jurors apparently didn't think it was strong at all. They deliberated just about four hours before clearing the six defendants of 57 total charges.
"I couldn't see it going on real long personally," juror Dotty Rinaldo said of the deliberations.
She was an alternate in the trial and didn't get to vote, but she said she saw the same thing her fellow jurors saw - "or didn't see."
"I thought for (the state) to go to the extent that they went to, they had to have something," the first-time juror said. "There really wasn't anything."
That's what defense attorney Jim Grimley saw. He is representing David Callaway, whose sister - Toni Dixon - was among the six just acquitted.
"The theory was there was conspiracy between all 14," Grimley said. "If a jury has already determined there was no conspiracy between the first six, basically utilizing the same evidence they will in this trial, you don't have anything.
"Unless there's new evidence, I don't know how they can go forward on the second trial," he added.
If the state does decide to continue, Grimley said he will file a motion that says just that.
David Callaway - who was released from prison in December after serving nearly a year in a separate case - attended a few days of the trial to support his sister. Another brother, former Atlantic City Council President Craig Callaway, said after the verdict that the case was the state's attempt to quiet a group that normally doesn't get to vote.
"What the state did was cruel, malicious and vicious to the voters of Atlantic City," he said.
"They didn't conduct an investigation," said Ed Weinstock, who represented Dixon. "They had an agenda."
Even before the first trial the defendants refused lenient plea deals that included little to no jail time. With the across-the-board acquittals, admissions of guilt among the next six become even less likely.
Even Ronald Harris - who admitted guilt to take a deal with the state - is now looking to take back his plea, public defender Dave Henderson confirmed.
The deputy attorneys general who prosecuted the case had said Harris' testimony would prove there was a conspiracy to steal the election for Small. But, just minutes after taking the stand Jan. 11, Harris asked Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten if he could go to the bathroom. Upon his return, he behaved in a way Batten later called "odd," even dry heaving into a trash can and giving a Press of Atlantic City photographer the middle finger.
The next day, the state withdrew his plea deal and Batten told the jury they were to act as if Harris had never taken the stand. On Jan. 13, Henderson filed a motion to have the guilty plea rescinded. He is still awaiting a court date.
"I've got to believe they took their best shots at this trial," Hoffner said. "I can't imagine they didn't."
The cost of the first trial has not yet been calculated, but included flying in and housing witnesses, putting up out-of-area prosecutors and paying for five of the six defense attorneys. Only Small paid for his own counsel, the rest - who all qualified for public defenders - had private attorneys who will submit bills to the state. Those are expected to be between $60,000 and $80,000 each.
"It wasn't a bad experience," juror Rinaldo said of serving on the jury, where the 16 people who sat in the jury box struck up friendships. "I just feel bad because it was a waste of money."
When asked if the state should prosecute the next six, her verdict was quick: "I really don't think so. I think it would be a waste."
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