By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
Yet instead of hectoring the Hotel Six jurors for failing to reach a verdict or pushing them into several more days of deliberation, Hittner sent them packing with the advice not to feel down because even a mistrial is an exercise of the system at work.
"It surprised me that he accepted [the mistrial] so readily," says jury foreman Gerald "Butch" Frazee, who had steeled himself to expect critical words if not outright wrath from the judge.
Though he didn't acknowledge it, Hittner's calm demeanor likely reflected his relief that this trial didn't produce convictions that might not have withstood the scrutiny of the inevitable defense appeals. During the proceeding, the attorneys for current councilmembers Yarbrough and John Castillo, former councilmembers Reyes and John Peavy and former port commissioner Maldonado had repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, asked the judge to declare a mistrial.
After the trial started, a series of defense revelations detailed the misdeeds of Molineiro, the Chilean-born informant who masqueraded as a Latin American businessman from the Cayman Group. The prosecutors had chosen to make the informant the anchor of their presentation of most of the much-ballyhooed audio- and videotapes. Criminal attorney Kent Schaffer provided the defense with evidence that forced Molineiro to admit he had lied, stolen money and used drugs while in the employ of U.S. law-enforcement agencies.
Any convictions returned in the trial could very well have been overturned because the government, in pretrial discovery, did not disclose internal federal documents severely damaging to Molineiro's credibility. Prosecutors claimed to have been unaware of the documents earlier.
"I believe this judge, like any, would not like a verdict in a high-profile trial to be overturned on appeal," Frazee said. He was asked whether the threat of successful appeals might have made the mistrial more palatable to Hittner.
"You may," opined Frazee, "have put your finger on it."
The foreman, who had voted for conviction on all 11 counts and believed the trial documented corruption in city government, immediately embarked on a series of media appearances after the mistrial in which he called for tighter campaign and ethics regulations for local politicians.
His final appearance before City Council last Wednesday had all the prerequisites for a dramatic confrontation. Frazee, a chemical company president, was kept cooling his heels most of the day as councilmembers moved one speaker after another ahead of him.
He eventually read a four-page statement to the Council, looking up only once during an unscripted tangent to directly address Mayor Lee Brown. He implored the mayor to turn the Hotel Six trial into a positive experience by crafting new ethics regulations.
The mayor and councilmembers remained silent, refusing to respond to Frazee's challenges. City Attorney Anthony Hall previously alerted them that it might be inappropriate to discuss cases where no verdict had yet been rendered. For whatever reason, on this subject, the politicians seemed to have no desire to pontificate.
Defendant councilmembers Yarbrough and Castillo simply watched as Frazee spoke directly to them. "Your own defense creates grave doubts in my mind about your integrity," Frazee told the pair. "I believe your constituents deserve better."
Yarbrough chatted on a telephone during part of Frazee's five-minute talk, while Castillo fiddled with some papers. No doubt they were both silently giving thanks that whomever is chosen the next foreman of a jury of their peers, it won't be Butch Frazee.
The replay of the Hotel Six trial will bear more than a passing resemblance to a Hollywood big-budget action flick subjected to a test-screening before a very critical audience. Some things just didn't fly in the first cut, and one was that plump little Chilean informant, Molineiro, in the role of law-enforcement good guy.
Before Judge Hittner dismissed the jury, he heard a final round of motions from defense attorneys. One of them came as no surprise to anyone who had followed the testimony.
Reyes's attorney, Mike Ramsey, immediately asked the judge to order the prosecution to make sure Molineiro did not skip the country before the next trial. Hittner complied in unusually strong language, saying he would hold the prosecutors responsible if Julio pulled a complete fade-out. He might have been reading the prosecutors' minds concerning what they'd really like to do with their radioactive informant.
Molineiro is both the worst and best thing that ever happened to Reyes. His street smarts allowed him to win the crafty councilman's confidence and gather the incriminating conversations that are the cornerstone of the trial. His repeated failings as an informant have given Reyes his one chance to escape conviction against overwhelming evidence.
The problem for the prosecutors is that most of the on-location action shoots by the FBI Stingovision crew put Julio in a co-starring role, making it impossible to eliminate his speaking lines in court. Future jurors will undoubtedly be extremely curious about that chatty little guy with the beer belly and the big cigar who is in on most of the essential action, including the presentation of the $50,000 payment to Reyes. No one's going to buy the explanation that Julio was simply the FBI's "best boy" toting the sound equipment around on the set.