Case against Young 'just wasn't clear'; Too much confusion gave jurors no choice but to acquit, they say

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The public corruption case against Larry Young seemed to have it all: Envelopes of cash. A Harvard-trained doctor ready to swear he made payoffs. Canceled checks emblazoned with the initials "LY," signifying alleged bribe money went to the once powerful state senator from Baltimore.

But in the end, there were too many unanswered questions, too much confusion and too many state witnesses who simply couldn't be believed, prompting jurors in Anne Arundel County late Friday to acquit Young on four counts of bribery and one count of tax evasion.

For the jurors, prosecutors failed to tell a convincing story of how the General Assembly's leading health care legislator allegedly used his position to take more than $72,000 from a health care company that was trying to secure a piece of the state's lucrative Medicaid market.

"It just wasn't clear," one juror said.

With so much confusion in the courtroom, so much doubt about what they were hearing from witnesses and prosecutors, and with a man's future at stake, jurors said they had no choice but to vote for an acquittal.

"It's somebody's life you're dealing with," said juror Kurk Hess, 38, a Crofton contractor.

According to Hess and other jurors who were huddled in a third-floor room of the Annapolis courthouse, the 5 1/2 hours of deliberations before the verdict at 6: 05 p.m. were relatively calm.

There were no scenes from "Twelve Angry Men." No shouting matches. No arm-twisting.

Instead, after sitting through seven days of testimony, listening to nearly 30 prosecution witnesses and seeing dozens of state exhibits, the jurors calmly and methodically went through their notes from the trial. They expressed their thoughts about the case and came to the same conclusion -- not guilty.

"We wanted to be sure that everyone had the chance to say what they felt," said Hess, who added that in the end, they unanimously agreed that State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli had simply failed to prove the case.

Difficult case to follow

From the start, the case was on shaky ground.

Public corruption cases are notoriously difficult to prove. Witnesses are few. Records are frequently destroyed. The cases involve complicated paper trails. Some cases are so convoluted that they are difficult for prosecutors and investigators to follow -- let alone jurors. The case against Young was no different.

To overcome the complexities, prosecutors frequently try to develop a simple story for jurors, a narrative they can easily follow. But jurors said Montanarelli never gave them a sense of who Young was, why he was so politically powerful, and what was at stake for the company at the center of the case -- Diagnostic Health Imaging Systems Inc. (DHIS), a Prince George's County radiology firm that was desperately trying to become a health maintenance organization.

"We looked at the same checks too many times," said Kristopher Fraser, 30, a juror who manages the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis. "There was no continuity to the case. They were bouncing all over the place."

Fraser said the jurors believed that Young "probably got the money" but that the proof never became clear to them.

Montanarelli appeared uncomfortable before the jury as he explained the bribery and extortion counts and rattled off dates when DHIS supposedly paid Young and one of his political aides. He touched upon some themes -- a company in financial trouble, a politician who could help -- but he never fully developed the story for the jury.

"This is not an easy case to understand," Montanarelli said toward the end of his opening statement.

It was a remark that would resonate with jurors.

By contrast, Young's defense attorney seemed to connect with the jurors. Gregg L. Bernstein told them that his client was a hard-working man who lived with his 86-year-old mother and tried to help his minority constituents in West Baltimore throughout his political career.

"Larry Young is not a person of expensive tastes. He does not live in an expensive home. He does not ride in expensive cars," Bernstein told the jurors. "In most regards, he leads a very simple life."

Bernstein then focused on what he saw as the weaknesses of the state's case, and he stuck to those themes throughout the trial: The state's star witness, Dr. Christian Chinwuba, the owner of DHIS, was a man "not to be believed." He didn't tell the truth when prosecutors first asked him about payments to Young, so why should jurors believe him now?

Chinwuba and other state witnesses received immunity deals from the state, and only then did they begin to say Young extorted bribes from them. DHIS officers accused Young to cover up their own embezzlement scheme and to account for more than $650,000 in checks that were made out to "cash."

DHIS was a company in chaos, where payroll checks bounced and accountants couldn't keep track of the books. If corporate officers couldn't document their expenses, how could they be sure that checks made out to "cash" were intended as bribes for Young? At the end of his opening statement, Bernstein seized on Montanarelli's remark to the jury.

"The reason this case is so difficult to understand is because the evidence does not fit the theory of the state's case," he told the panel.

A benefit to the defense

When prosecutors began to put their witnesses on the stand two weeks ago, the testimony sometimes supported the state's case, but other times it benefited the defense.

Jeffrey Idika was an accountant for DHIS. He testified that he frequently jotted the initials "LY" and "SLY" on the memo lines of checks made out to "cash" because he was told they were intended for Young.

But during cross-examination, Idika admitted that he didn't know at the time that "LY" meant Larry Young and that he came to that conclusion only after speaking with prosecutors. More damaging to the state was Idika's explanation of the "SLY" notations.

Prosecutors told jurors they meant "Senator Larry Young."

Idika said they could have meant something else.

"Somebody Loves You," he said.

In addition to the counts involving cash and computers Young allegedly received from DHIS, prosecutors also charged that the former state senator extorted a consulting contract from the company for his political aide Zachary Powell.

Prosecutors called Powell as one of their witnesses, but he, too, provided some help to Young's defense. He said he worked about 15 hours a week for DHIS in exchange for $1,000 a month. While he said he frequently drove Young to the company's headquarters in Lanham, where prosecutors contended he picked up the cash payments, Powell said he never saw what Young did once he went inside the building.

A more important prosecution witness, Albert St. Hillaire, the chief financial officer of DHIS, also helped the defense. He admitted that he falsified records subpoenaed by a state grand jury to cover up alleged payments to Young. He also said he wrote checks for $1 under $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements to the Internal Revenue Service.

"In exchange for testifying against Mr. Young, the prosecutor told you, you wouldn't be prosecuted, isn't that correct?" Bernstein asked.

"That's correct," St. Hillaire said.

Bernstein then asked St. Hillaire why he wrote checks for just under $10,000, noting that the practice, called "structuring," is a federal crime.

"I just didn't want the headache of filling out another form," St. Hillaire said.

State's star witness

By the end of the first week of the trial, with the credibility of some of the prosecution's early witnesses in question, Chinwuba took the stand, the only person to say he personally gave money to Young.

Chinwuba couldn't have been a worse witness for prosecutors.

He was combative and evasive when he was being questioned by Assistant State Prosecutor A. Thomas Krehely Jr. Chinwuba testified that he paid Young because he "had to," hired Young because of his political power, and had frequent discussions with Young about how Chinwuba wanted his new company, PrimeHealth Corp., to become an HMO. He also said the reason he gave Powell a consulting contract was because Young persisted.

But under cross-examination, he told Bernstein that he never felt pressure to give Young anything, would do it all over again, and didn't believe that his arrangement with the former state senator constituted bribery.

"He never promised me anything," Chinwuba testified.

Chinwuba continued to undercut the prosecution's case. A native Nigerian, Chinwuba said that he understood bribery because it's so prevalent in his country and that his relationship with Young didn't come close to committing a crime.

"I'm telling you, if this man behaved as if it was bribery, I would tell you," he said.

"Mr. Young never promised he would do anything?" Bernstein asked.

"Hell no," Chinwuba responded.

Bernstein also concentrated on the evolution of Chinwuba's story. He noted for the jurors that when Chinwuba was first questioned by prosecutors and investigators, he denied giving money to Young. But when he received immunity, he began to tell a different story, saying he provided more than $72,000 to Young, Bernstein said.

At the end of the prosecution's case last week, Bernstein asked Judge Joseph P. Manck to dismiss the four extortion counts, arguing that there had been no testimony showing that anyone at DHIS had been threatened or placed in fear by Young.

Manck agreed, essentially cutting the prosecution's case in half.

Jurors were surprised to learn that those charges were no longer part of the case.

"We felt we could have found him guilty on the extortion counts," said Fraser, the juror from Annapolis. "It seemed more like an extortion case than a bribery case."

Gamble by the defense

After the extortion counts were dismissed, Bernstein took a gamble. Over the objections of his client, who wanted to testify, Bernstein decided against putting on a defense to the state's case. He believed that prosecutors had failed to meet the burden of proof to secure convictions and that he had created a substantial amount of doubt about the charges.

"The defense rests," Bernstein told Manck on Thursday.

In closing arguments Friday, Krehely asked the jurors to stay focused on the money and Young's "corrupt intent," and to use their common sense when they began their deliberations.

"People in high places don't take money from people without the expectation that their duties will be influenced," Krehely told them. "Was Senator Young influenced by the money that was given to him? Your answer has to be yes."

But by then, the jurors said, they were lost in the confusion of the case. They didn't believe the prosecution team had proved that money was paid to Young.

Bernstein told the panel that the case "really all comes down, I think, to Dr. Chinwuba." He asked the jurors to imagine making an important decision in their lives based on Chinwuba's word.

"Am I prepared to convict Mr. Young based on that testimony?" he asked the jurors to consider. "I don't think you can do it."

Juror Lilly Miller later said that she had "problems" with Chinwuba's testimony. Hess, the juror from Crofton, called him "evasive." And Fraser, the juror from Annapolis, said he couldn't believe the doctor's testimony.

"He was pretty much discredited during the cross-examination," Fraser said. "Bernstein knew what he was doing. He really impressed me."

At the end, Bernstein took the jury back to the opening day of the trial, when Montanarelli said: "This is not an easy case to understand."

"Is it difficult to understand because the evidence doesn't fit the theory of the case? Ask yourselves," Bernstein said.

"This has been a very long and difficult experience for my client. It's something that has been going on for a long time in his life," he said. "It's time to end this long ordeal for him and give him back his liberty."

Five and half hours later, the jurors did just that.

Bernstein may have developed some of his strategy for the Young trial by watching how Montanarelli and his staff performed in another recent high-profile case that ended badly for the prosecution.

Earlier this year, Bernstein sat in a Baltimore City Circuit Court courtroom, observing the state prosecutor's case against William J. Madonna Jr. and Anthony J. Cianferano. The two were charged with bribery and conspiracy to thwart state liquor laws.

That case never made it to the jury.

Judge Mabel Houze Hubbard concluded that Montanarelli had not provided enough evidence to support the bribery charge. The two defendants entered guilty pleas to the lesser conspiracy charge. They were sentenced to 300 hours' community service and $1,000 in fines.

In that case, like the Young case, jurors said afterward that they did not believe the state's star witnesses, who testified under a grant of immunity against prosecution.

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