Democratic New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez will be able to hang on to his job and his freedom - for now, at least - after jurors said they were hopelessly deadlocked on corruption charges against the lawmaker - fulfilling the prediction of a juror who was excused last week and decided to share details of her experience with the media.
Menendez was indicted back in 2015 on bribery and corruption charges stemming from his relationship with a Florida ophthamologist.
Federal prosecutors say Menendez accepted $1 million in political donations along with free flights and vacations in exchange for intervening to help doctor and businessman Salomon Melgen with an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute, a Dominican Republic port contract and also helping Melgen secure visas for three of his girlfriends.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court blocked what legal experts described as a “hail mary” motion by Menendez’s legal team to help their client avoid standing trial.
“We cannot reach a unanimous decision," the jury said in a note just before lunch on Thursday. “Nor are we willing to move away from our strong convictions,” the Washington Post reported.
WaPo described the mistrial as a “major victory” for a senator who had to fight 18 counts of alleged corruption, and a setback for the Justice Department, whose efforts to combat public corruption have been curtailed by a recent Supreme Court decision that help exonerate former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
After receiving Thursday’s note, U.S. District Court Judge William Walls decided to interview the foreman and at least one other juror in chambers, in the presence of the lawyers on the case.
Prosecutors had asked the judge to issue a clarifying instruction to the panel, telling jurors they could reach verdicts on individual counts in the indictment, even if they can’t find agreement on all the counts. Judge Walls rejected that suggestion, saying to do so would be “going down the slippery slope of coercion.’"
He added: “There’s no point doing something just to say you’ve done it."
Menendez defense lawyer Abbe Lowell told the judge, “I think we have to declare a mistrial."
“They are telling us in the clearest terms possible that they have done their job as diligent jurors. I think we have a real hung jury,’’ said Lowell.
After nine weeks of testimony, the jury has struggled to reach a consensus on any of the charges against Menendez and Melgen, his co-defendent.
The jury of seven women and five men began deliberating last week, and, according to the Post, it quickly became clear there were sharp divisions.
As WaPo notes, the DOJ will likely put Menendez on trial again because of the precedent they’d risk setting by letting him go.
While mistrials are generally considered wins for defense lawyers and losses for prosecutors, the Justice Department will likely feel significant internal pressure to put the senator on trial again, because recent Supreme Court decisions have raised questions about how much legal authority prosecutors still have in pursuing corruption charges involving payments not explicitly and directly linked to official acts.
Some legal experts have warned that a defeat for the government in the Menendez case could make prosecutors more reluctant to pursue public corruption cases in the future.
Of course, a guilty verdict could have had major ramifications in the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a narrow majority. If Menendez had been convicted, there would likely have been pressure on him to resign, or for fellow senators to expel him. If his seat had become vacant before mid-January, New Jersey governor Chris Christie would have been able to appoint his successor, likely turning a Democratic seat Republican until a November 2018 midterm election. But it was not clear that even if he had been convicted, whether Democrats would go along with expelling one of their own, even as Republican leaders have threatened to expel Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore if he wins.
However, aside from a blip following his indictment, there is no political pressure for Menendez to step down, and for now the case is treated as irrelevant by both journalists and politicians.
Melgen is already awaiting sentencing for a previous conviction for defrauding Medicare. The two men were on trial for bribery, and Menendez was also accused of lying on government disclosure forms about his finances when he did not report gifts of flights paid for by Melgen — an omission the senator calls an accidental oversight, not a criminal lie.
In closing arguments Menendez’s attorney Lowell said his client’s “deep and abiding friendship’’ with Melgen “destroys every single one of the charges’’ against them.
“Not one document, not one email hints at a corrupt agreement,’’ Lowell told the jury.