AP Interview: Ala. gambling jury favors acquittals

A rural mail carrier who was a juror in Alabama's 10-week gambling corruption trial said Monday the majority of the predominantly female jury wanted to acquit the defendants on all charges because of scant evidence and a dim view of some prosecution witnesses.

In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Teresa Tolbert said she was among those favoring acquittal on all charges. She said federal prosecutor Justin Shur told the jury in his opening statement that wiretapped phone calls and secretly recorded meetings would tell a story of greed and corruption at the Alabama Legislature, but the tapes never lived up to his billing.

"From the very beginning when we were listening to the tapes, I was like, 'Surely this can't be all they have.' I kept waiting and waiting," she said.

The defendants were accused of swapping millions in campaign contributions, fundraising concerts with country music stars, free polling and other compensation for votes on legislation designed to keep electronic bingo casinos operating during a crackdown by former Gov. Bob Riley's gambling task force.

The jury of 11 women and one man issued a split decision Thursday after meeting for 39 hours over seven days. The panel returned not guilty verdicts on 91 charges and could not reach a unanimous decision on 33 charges. Two defendants, Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery and VictoryLand casino lobbyist Bob Geddie, were cleared of all charges. The remaining seven defendants are scheduled for retrial in October.

Tolbert said the panel split 8-4 in favor of acquittal on all undecided charges but one. On that charge, it was divided 11-1 for acquittal of former Sen. Jim Preuitt of Talladega on a charge of lying to the FBI.

Also subject to retrial are VictoryLand casino owner Milton McGregor, his lobbyist Tom Coker, Sen. Harri Anne Smith of Slocomb, former Sen. Larry Means of Attalla, former legislative bill writer Ray Crosby, and Country Crossing casino spokesman Jay Walker.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson talked privately with defense and prosecution attorneys Monday and then scheduled a retrial for the seven remaining defendants starting Oct. 3. Justice Department attorneys asked him to split the defendants into three groups for separate retrials. Some defense attorneys objected, and the judge said he would discuss that issue with the lawyers on Wednesday.

The Justice Department declined comment. Walker's attorney, Susan James, and Smith's attorney, Jim Parkman, said prosecutors insisted on a combined trial the first time because they thought it would help their case, but now they think separate trials would be easier for jurors to understand. They oppose letting prosecutors change their strategy.

Tolbert predicted it will be difficult for the prosecution to get a conviction in a retrial because of a lack of evidence.

She said three people who pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution — Country Crossing casino developer Ronnie Gilley and his lobbyists, Jarrod Massey and Jennifer Pouncy — lacked credibility. Gilley and Massey came across as arrogant rather than repentant about their admitted law breaking, she said.

She recalled one moment in Gilley's testimony that damaged his credibility.

"One of the jaw-dropping moments in his testimony was when he said some powerful Democrats wanted him to run for governor, but he couldn't remember who," she said.

Tollbert said three Republican legislators who helped the FBI with its investigation — Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale, Rep. Barry Mask of Wetumpka and former Rep. Benjamin Lewis of Dothan — "had obvious political motivations."

In the trial, the jury heard portions of a tape recording Beason made in a private meeting with Republican legislators where they talked about strategy for the 2010 election, when the Republican Party was trying to gain control of the Legislature. The jury heard one snippet where the Republicans discussed how the gambling legislation would go on the November 2010 ballot if approved by the Legislature and that would bring out more Democrat-leaning black voters, who favored gambling, and would hinder the GOP's efforts.

The legislation didn't go on the ballot, and the GOP won control of the Legislature.

Tolbert, who served as the jury's computer operator during deliberations, said the panel listened to Beason's entire two-hour tape during the deliberations, and it persuaded them that politics was involved in the case.

"Is there anybody in Alabama who doesn't think that?" she said.

Tolbert, a 40-year-old mother of two sons from Red Level, said that before the case came up, she had visited the Creek Indians' Wind Creek casino in Atmore to see why everyone was talking about electronic bingo. She said she doesn't have a problem with gambling, but the games, which have flashing lights and sound effects like slot machines, didn't appeal to her.

"I don't like throwing my money away," she said.

One question spectators had during the jury's deliberations was how a panel of 11 women, plus five female alternate jurors, elected the lone male member to be foreman.

"He had to spend all summer with 16 women. We had to give the poor guy something," she said.

After 10 weeks at the trial, Tolbert said she's grateful to return to delivering mail.

"I told all my coworkers that I won't complain about my job for at least a month," she said.