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Jurors in Michael Carona case put aside personal feelings

Despite believing the former O.C. sheriff was involved in corruption -- or just plain disliking him -- the jury focused on laws and evidence, and acquitted him of all but one felony.

January 17, 2009|Tami Abdollah and Stuart Pfeifer

They listened to the government's secretly recorded tapes over and over. They heard what the prosecution's star witness had to say and didn't believe him.

Yet in the end, the jurors who acquitted former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona of five of six felonies Friday were most swayed by U.S. Dist. Judge Andrew Guilford's instruction that they must keep an eye on the calendar.

Of the 64 acts of corruption alleged by prosecutors, only a handful fell within the five-year federal statute of limitations. Guilford instructed jurors to consider only those acts alleged to have occurred since late October 2002 -- five years before Carona was indicted on conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering charges.

But the panel was unable to reach a consensus on those acts that fell within the statute.

"In my mind, there's no doubt that he did what he did, but we have to go by what the law said," said juror Jim Ybarra, 54, a Los Angeles Unified junior high school teacher from Garden Grove. "They were obviously in some kind of cahoots, and everybody felt it."

The panel of 11 men and one woman convicted Carona of one count of witness tampering stemming from an August 2007 meeting between him and former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, which the government secretly taped.

Carona, jurors agreed, tried to persuade Haidl to lie to a grand jury investigating corruption allegations, including cash bribes and laundered campaign contributions.

"He incriminated himself," Ybarra said.

Ybarra and other jurors believed that Carona conspired with others to enrich himself while in office. But it was the judge's instructions on how to interpret the law that informed his decision on the corruption charges.

"I thought he was absolutely guilty," Ybarra said. "But I had to follow the law."

Haidl was a poor witness against Carona, he and other jurors said. The multimillionaire businessman wore a hidden microphone in meetings with Carona and implicated him during 10 days of testimony as part of a plea agreement on unrelated tax charges.

"We did not believe Haidl," said the jury foreman, a retired engineer who would only give his first name, Surj. "He didn't come across as being truthful."

Surj described the six days of deliberation as a methodical process during which the panel considered the six felony counts one at a time. He said jurors listened to the covertly made tapes about 20 times.

Gifts that Haidl showered on Carona -- which Haidl said were given in exchange for influence within the Sheriff's Department -- were seen by some jurors as gifts between close friends, the jury foreman said.

"This is a very complex case," he said, "and we struggled with it -- several of the jurors, including myself. It's been very emotional; we haven't been able to sleep at night."

Several jurors said the government's case might have been helped by testimony from former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo, who allegedly served as a conduit to Carona for Haidl's bribes. Jaramillo, at one time a close associate of Carona, was convicted of perjury and misusing a county helicopter in an unrelated case.

"We were hoping to see Jaramillo," said juror Jerome Bell, 42, a truck driver from Anaheim. "Maybe he could have shed light on some of this."

Bell, the lone black juror, was outraged by Carona's use of the N-word in taped conversations with Haidl. On that basis, he was initially predisposed to convict.

"I said, 'Anything he did, he's guilty,' " Bell said. But he said the judge's admonitions to keep an open mind pushed him to focus on the evidence. "After hearing the evidence, I had to forgive him in my heart," Bell said.

The judge closed the courtroom after the verdict so Carona could meet the jurors. As Carona thanked the panel, Bell said, he embraced Carona and forgave him for using the racial slur.

Then, he said, both men broke down and wept.

--

tami.abdollah@latimes.com

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

Times staff writers Mike Anton, Christine Hanley and Nathan Olivarez-Giles contributed to this report.

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