The eight-woman, four-man federal jury in the Jonathan Pinson case signaled Wednesday evening it may be deadlocked after three days of deliberations in a major South Carolina federal public corruption trial.
“We are at a point where we do not agree,” read a note the jury sent U.S. Judge David Norton around 7:30 p.m.
It was not clear from the note, which Norton read aloud in court to prosecution and defense attorneys, whether the jury was stalemated on all 45 of the counts against Pinson, which include the seven counts against co-defendant Eric Robinson, or just a few of those counts.
Norton sent the jury home, telling it to return to the U.S. District courthouse in Columbia at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. He warned jurors not to discuss the case or read or watch news media accounts. He also told them: People are counting on you.
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Out of the jurors’ hearing, Norton told prosecution and defense attorneys he may give the jury what is known as “an Allen charge” in the morning.
That charge is a set of instructions a judge can give to deadlocked jurors. The instructions may include such advice as to listen with deference to other jurors’ positions and reminders that if they don’t reach a verdict, then the case will likely have to be retried by 12 other citizens, costing the taxpayers a great deal of time and money.
The case began June 15. In two weeks, the jury heard from some 20 prosecution witnesses and listened to excerpts from 118 FBI wiretapped calls of Pinson talking with associates about various business deals.
Another development late Wednesday was the judge’s revelation that one juror has a pharmacy internship she must report to on Monday and will have to be excused from the jury after mid-day Thursday.
Over objections by defense attorney Jim Griffin, who asked the judge to declare a mistrial, Norton ruled that if the jury did not reach a decision by Thursday, it would not meet on Friday – the Fourth of July – but continue deliberating Monday with 11 jurors. The law says a criminal case can continue if it has 11 jurors, Norton said.
Although the judge still has two alternate jurors on stand-by, he ruled that since the jury has been deliberating for three days without the alternates, it would not be feasible to put a new juror in with the current jury. If an alternate juror is put in a jury during deliberations, the jury has to begin anew.
The counts against Pinson, the former board chairman of S.C. State University, are related to four schemes involving alleged plots to illegally get money. The charges include bank fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, extortion and misuse of his public position of university board chairman.
Pinson’s co-defendant, Eric Robinson, faces seven charges of various kinds of fraud. All of Robinson’s charges involve an alleged scheme in which he and Pinson and others plotted to profit by getting a certain promoter hired to manage the university’s 2011 homecoming concert.
Besides the homecoming concert scheme, the charges against Pinson involve schemes to skim federal money from Pinson’s Columbia public-private housing development called Village at River’s Edge, skimming federal grant money from a program that brought a Georgia diaper company to Marion County and a conspiracy to profit from a 2011 land deal in which S.C. State University was going to buy a 121-acre tract from a Pinson business associate.
On Wednesday, the jury asked again to hear wiretaps in which Florida developer Richard Zahn is heard promising former Pinson a Porsche Cayenne SUV in return for help in selling Zahn’s 121-acre Sportsman’s Retreat to the school.
The jury, in its third day of deliberations in the public corruption case at the U.S. District courthouse in Columbia, had requested to hear those wiretapped conversations and others.
In one Porsche wiretap, Zahn tells Pinson that once the deal is finalized, “There’s a Cayenne in your backyard.”
Pinson replies, “Oh, yeah, yeah.”
On another conversation recorded by the FBI about the Cayenne, Zahn told Pinson that after the deal goes through, “there would be a fee” to Pinson for his help with the Orangeburg land deal, then adds that the Cayenne “wouldn’t even be a fee – that would be a thank you in appreciation.”
On another wiretap, Zahn tells Pinson that a university official “really needs your guidance on how to get it done,” referring to the proposed land acquisition.
Pinson is heard saying, “You just help me get that Porsche Cayenne.”
Zahn then says, “Between you and me, we would get that done. We would deliver it to your house.”
In other wiretaps played to the jury Wednesday, Pinson is heard talking with former S.C. State University counsel Ed Givens about getting money from a deal Givens and Pinson helped broker to get their friends the promoting contract to hire live bands for the 2011 homecoming concert. The two men discuss their splits with the promoters and how much money they can make off future concerts if this one goes well.
Pinson is charged with violations of the “honest services” law, which holds the public has a right to expect that their public officials will not have their decisions unfairly influenced by the possibility of a bribe.
To prove an “honest services” violation, the government must prove a defendant knowingly participated in a scheme that would have deprived the public of its right to “honest, faithful and disinterested service” from a public official, Norton told the jury Monday. The public official does not have to actually get something of value to be in violation.
FBI-recorded conversations played Wednesday also had Pinson and Zahn discussing their plans to develop Gonzales Gardens, a Columbia downtown public housing project. Zahn needed the money from the sale of the Sportsman’s Retreat to invest in the redevelopment of Gonzales Gardens in Columbia.
In that conversation, the two men discuss how they expect help in bidding for the job of razing and reconstructing Gonzales Gardens from Columbia Housing Authority director Gil Walker and Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. Walker and Devine are not charged with a crime. In other calls, played last week, they talked about help coming from Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.
Earlier this year, Zahn pleaded guilty to federal charges involving the land deal. He testified against Pinson earlier in this trial.
Givens also pleaded guilty and testified against Pinson in the current trial.
Neither the Orangeburg land deal nor the Columbia deal happened. Pinson never got a Porsche Cayenne.
Staff writer Clif LeBlanc contributed.