MAYS LANDING - Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small showed little emotion Monday afternoon as the forewoman in his voter-fraud trial read each “not guilty” verdict.
Then she got to the last charge: hindering apprehension by lying to the grand jury.
“Not guilty,” she said one last time. That’s when the tears came.
After four months of testimony, what may be Atlantic County’s longest-serving jury acquitted Small and five others of allegations that they disenfranchised voters and tried to steal the 2009 Democratic mayoral primary in Atlantic City.
"I feel vindicated," Small said outside the courtroom, wearing the same suit he wore when a jury cleared him of similar charges in 2006.
"All along I said I couldn't wait for my day in court," he said. "This has been a long journey for my family and toward vindicating our name."
Small and 13 others were indicted in September 2009, accused of disenfranchising voters and mishandling absentee and messenger ballots. Two men pleaded guilty, although one had his deal with the state revoked after his strange behavior on the witness stand caused the state to ask that his entire testimony be stricken.
Co-defendants Toni Dixon, LuQuay Zahir, Tracy Pijuan, Floyd Tally and Thomas Quirk also were acquitted Monday.
Six others are supposed to go on trial later this year, but the Attorney General’s Office was not ready to comment on how the verdict may affect the remaining defendants.
“We are disappointed but must respect the verdict of the jury,” Attorney General Paula Dow said in a statement issued two hours after the verdict. “The prosecutors, detectives and other personnel assigned to this case gave it their all in the interest of safeguarding fair elections and the fundamental right of citizens to vote. I commend them for the skill and dedication with which they conducted this trial and the underlying investigation.”
For the first time, the jury that had been lauded for its patience throughout the long and slow-moving trial appeared to show how trying the process had been on them.
As the verdict was read, a male juror bent over, rubbing his face, his cheeks flush. A woman in the jury box looked at the three alternate jurors in the audience and mouthed, “So emotional,” as she tapped her chest and motioned toward the defense table.
When the first round of “not guilty” verdicts was read on the conspiracy count, several members of the audience cheered. A few sobs of joy also were heard.
Pijuan draped a tissue over his face, pressing it against his eyes.
Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten thanked the jurors as he dismissed them for the last time since the trial began Nov. 9.
“I had the pleasure of spending each day of this trial with each of you,” he told them. “You were engaged, attentive, polite, courteous, collegial.”
Supporters of the six defendants applauded the 12 as they left the jury box.
Gwen Lewis, who attended the trial every day to support her sister, Dixon, said she was at a loss for words.
“I can’t stop crying,” she said outside the courtroom, after finally letting go of Dixon.
Dixon’s brother, former Atlantic City political powerhouse Craig Callaway, said he could have a lot to say to attack the state, “but this is a time for being humble,” he said.
He did say that the verdict was proof that what the group was trying to do was engage those who do not normally vote, not to disenfranchise voters and steal an election, as the state had charged.
“It is unfortunate that, in this case, we’ve seen New Jersey at its worst,” Callaway said. “Now, we’ve seen today the justice system at its best.”
Outside the Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse, it was unclear who was happier to see the trial conclude: the defendants or the jurors.
The 15 citizens who listened to months of testimony left the jury parking lot beeping their horns. Some were even seen pumping their fists toward the defendants gathered in front of the courthouse celebrating.
“They gave us a victory lap,” Small said.
The celebration continued with a group picture taken of the defendants and their attorneys in front of the courthouse — a prediction Quirk’s attorney, Chris Hoffner, made at the beginning of the trial. Only defense attorney Timothy Reilly was missing, because he had another case inside, as was his client, Tally, who is serving a prison sentence on an unrelated charge.
“I feel happy for my client,” said Jill Cohen, who represented Pijuan. “I feel happy for all of them. They’re really a good group of people.”
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