NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Just over a month after a federal jury convicted them of causing traffic for the benefit of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly want a mistrial based on improper jury instructions.
Kelly’s brief appeared Tuesday morning, saying the trial court all but guaranteed a guilty verdict in keeping the jury from having to decide whether the plot was one of political payback.
A mother of four, Kelly had been Christie's deputy chief of staff when in August 2013 when she sent the ominous message: "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Weeks later on Sept. 9, the Democratic-run city lost two of its three lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge,
After four days of gridlock, it took an executive order from an official with the public agency that runs the bridge – the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – to reopen the closed lanes. The Port Authority has since admitted that the lanes were closed as part of an illegitimate traffic study concocted by Baroni and another Christie appointees to the Port Authority.
But a post-trial motion from Kelly’s attorney says the government failed to show necessary intent: a will to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s re-election.
“The act of conducting a traffic study/lane realignment only became illegal if done with the requisite mens rea,” attorney Michael Critchley wrote.
Kelly’s defense also notes that there was no binding legal document allocating the three lanes to Fort Lee. “Simply reallocating the lanes is only an application of [Port Authority] resources,” Critchley wrote.
The Port Authority “had every right to reduce, reallocate, or even eliminate the three dedicated segregated Fort Lee access lanes,” he added.
Kelly’s brief comes on the heels of a separate filing late Monday night by her co-defendant.
Noting that Baroni had been “lawfully entrusted with the power to distribute Port Authority resources in the manner in which he saw fit,” attorney Michael Baldassare says his client therefore could not be guilty of misallocating resources.
Several aspects of the motions echo points the defense attorneys made during the trial. Just before jury deliberations, U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton ruled that the jury did not have to decide on whether the lane shutdown was political payback — just whether it had been ordered for legitimate or illegitimate purposes.
But Critchley’s brief today notes that “punishment of Mayor Sokolich has been the cornerstone of the government’s case” from the beginning.
Theoriginal proposed jury instructions referenced the alleged political payback, and the government’s opening statement referenced punishment at least 18 times, he added.
“However, shortly before the close of evidence, the government decided that proving intent to punish Mayor Sokolich was no longer an element of the various offenses that had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Critchley wrote. “Suddenly, punishment morphed into motive, which did not need to be proven at all.”
The issue crept up during the third day of deliberation on Nov. 1, when the jury asked the court whether it should even consider political payback. “Can you be guilty of conspiracy without the act being intentionally punitive toward Mayor Socholich [sic?]” the jury’s question read. Wigenton responded that they could.
After that decision, a clearly perturbed Critchley claimed the jury instructions were improper. “By answering the way you’re answering, you’re directing a verdict of guilty,” he told Wigenton.
“Thank you,” the judge had replied sarcastically.
“You’re welcome, Judge,” Critchley had shot back.
Also at issue is whether the jury improperly deliberated. A NorthJersey.com article suggested that some jurors had spoken about the trial without the full jury present. In his Dec. 19 motion, Baldassare wrote that this qualifies for mistrial.
“At a minimum, the court should permit further inquiry of the jurors in order to determine whether some of them deliberated without the others on November 2,” he wrote.
Baldassare had filed a motion during the trial seeking a mistrial, but the motion was almost entirely redacted and its contents are still unknown. That filing came after an hours-long closed-door meeting between attorneys in the case and Wigenton, of which the transcript remains under seal.
Wigenton has yet to rule on a motion by media companies to unseal that transcript.
The government has until Jan. 16 to respond to the two motions to acquit.
Sentencing for Kelly and Baroni is scheduled for Feb. 21.
They will be sentenced alongside the government’s star witness, David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty to the Bridgegate conspiracy in 2015.
A number of high-ranking officials were accused during the trial as knowing about or helping cover up the scandal. Kelly said the governor had personally blessed the shutdown weeks before it happened.
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