With Friends Like These...

CompUSA and Latin America's richest man get a $450 million lesson from a Dallas jury: Friendship and business don't mix.

It didn't take long, juror Gloria Veloz says, for her to recognize that she had an uphill battle as one of the few panel members who didn't buy the plaintiff's case fully. Although she and Benningfield ate lunch together every day during the trial and remained cordial, Veloz says that the forewoman tried to persuade everyone to decide her way. Veloz had particular concerns about a fellow panel member who spoke little English.

She did spend the better part of a day, Veloz says, trying to persuade the others that Slim had not necessarily interfered with the Dallas partners' contract.

She believes many of the jurors were confused about the legal issues involved. The judge declined to answer three queries the jurors sent out about the definition of illegal interference with a contract.

Mark Werbner led the team that sued Slim, Halpin and CompUSA. He so impressed the jury that its forewoman, a teacher, invited him to speak to her class.
Mark Graham
Mark Werbner led the team that sued Slim, Halpin and CompUSA. He so impressed the jury that its forewoman, a teacher, invited him to speak to her class.

Veloz also remains convinced that some of the members were just plain biased against Hispanics. "I didn't feel good about the verdict. I think a lot had to do with the defendants being Mexican," Veloz says. She claims bigoted comments against Mexicans ricocheted in the jury room.

"There were open statements in the jury room. 'We don't want them here. Let them pay a lot of money,'" she says. "Some of the blacks said things like, 'They probably do cocaine.'"

Fatigue and the pressure of the majority, Veloz says, made her give in.

In one post-trial motion, which they later withdrew, the defense contended that Werbner and his team had stirred up anti-Mexican sentiment among jurors, referring to the defendants as Mexicans and the plaintiffs as the Dallas partners. Jenkens partner Daniel says the defense team may return to that argument on appeal if the judge doesn't dismiss the verdicts, as it has asked him to do.

In talking with the Observer, the jurors often mentioned the nationality of the defendants.

"They pulled a fast one on these Americans," says one juror, who like many asked not to be identified by name.

But in fairness, the plaintiff lawyer Werbner never openly expressed anti-Mexican sentiments to the jury. Instead, he emphasized a torn friendship, a tack that had resonance. Beyond that, when asked why they decided against the defendants, the jurors had specifics.

One noted Elias' "out of the blue" telephone call to Cunningham in September, when it was convenient for Slim's interests to stop the Dallas partners' negotiations with AOL Latin America. Another cited Elias' failure to return telephone calls. And most found fault with the former CompUSA CEO.

"I feel Halpin was messing with everyone, playing with their heads. I hope he does get held accountable," says one juror.

Even the plaintiff lawyers were willing to cut their opposing counsel some slack because they had to deal with Halpin.

"Throughout this case, we were thinking we were missing something. They are out of track. Something was really bizarre on that side," says Scher. "I think Halpin is a very difficult client."

McBride, however, seems surprisingly less eager than the others to heap scorn on Halpin. Indeed, despite the jury's vindication of his story, the Dallas businessman seems bittersweet about his court victory. He doesn't like to talk at length about the case.

"You know the rest," he says, stopping after he tells the beginning of his dealings with Halpin, as if the end still smarts too much to recount.

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