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Newark, NJ - Jury Asks Judge About Key Point In Bridge Lane-closing Case

Published on: November 1, 2016 06:31 PM
By: AP
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Defendant Bridget Kelly leaves Martin Luther Jr. Federal Court in Newark, N.J., Monday, Oct. 31, 2016. A jury deliberating the fate of two former allies of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie charged with using traffic jams for political revenge has gone home for the day. (Jim Alcorn/The Record via AP)Defendant Bridget Kelly leaves Martin Luther Jr. Federal Court in Newark, N.J., Monday, Oct. 31, 2016. A jury deliberating the fate of two former allies of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie charged with using traffic jams for political revenge has gone home for the day. (Jim Alcorn/The Record via AP)

Newark, NJ - A jury question about a central issue in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing trial prompted a heated exchange Tuesday between attorneys and led one defense lawyer to accuse the judge of effectively “directing a verdict of guilty.”

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The question of motive has underscored much of the trial of two former allies of Republican Gov. Christie who are accused of scheming to cause traffic jams to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse Christie in 2013.

On their first full day of deliberations after a six-week trial, jurors cut to the heart of the matter: They sent a note to U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton asking if defendants Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly could be convicted of conspiracy even if their acts weren’t meant to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

When Wigenton said she would respond that they could convict, Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley told the judge: “By answering that way, you’re directing a verdict of guilty.”

A few minutes later, he slumped back in his chair and shook his head, earning a rebuke from Wigenton. The judge later gave jurors her answer.

Kelly was Christie’s deputy chief of staff and Baroni was a top-level Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that operates the bridge.

Siding with prosecutors, Wigenton had told jurors they didn’t have to find that Kelly and Baroni knowingly intended to punish Sokolich in order to find them guilty of conspiracy. Intent, prosecutors successfully argued, wasn’t part of the offenses charged, even though it was mentioned in the indictment.

Defense attorneys had argued that the government based its entire case on demonstrating that the two conspired in the political retaliation plot, and that if jurors believed the defendants thought lane closures were part of a traffic study they could find them not guilty.

Both defendants testified they believed former Port Authority official David Wildstein when he said reducing three access lanes to one between Fort Lee and the bridge connecting New Jersey and New York was part of a legitimate traffic study. The lane closures plunged into gridlock for four days in September 2013.

Baroni and Kelly were charged in a nine-count indictment last year with conspiracy, misapplying the property of the Port Authority, wire fraud and deprivation of civil rights. The most serious charge carries a 20-year maximum prison sentence.

Christie wasn’t charged and has denied knowledge of the lane closures until weeks after they occurred. But Kelly, Wildstein and Baroni all testified during the trial that he knew before and while they were in progress.



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