By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's been described as the largest federal corruption case in the history of Dallas, but you wouldn't know it from the paltry number of people who observed the three-month trial. Most days former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill and the other four defendants, their legal team and the jury outnumbered onlookers.
There were days when the public interest waned and media coverage was relegated to posts of obscure blogs. Days when jurors and defendants were caught nodding off as the tedium of the trial weighed heavy on their eyelids. Days when the endless autumn rains or prospect of paying another $10 for parking kept people away.
Only not today.
Today, on the 15th floor of the Earle Cabell Federal Building, U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn's courtroom is packed. Reporters, courthouse observers, lawyers, family and friends of the defendants, and those too damn curious to be elsewhere this dreary October 5 morning are anxiously awaiting the jury's verdicts.
Before the jury returns, Lynn tells the assembled spectators that jurors have reached unanimous verdicts on all counts charging the defendants with conspiring to accept bribes from one affordable-housing developer and extorting money from another.
But more is at stake than the fate of the defendants. Guilty verdicts would leave an unsightly stain on Dallas City Hall that could take years to erase. Not guilty verdicts would deter mounting efforts at City Hall for comprehensive ethics reform and send a message to wayward politicos that the integrity of their more questionable actions could go unchecked.
Judge Lynn, a diminutive woman who has successfully controlled her courtroom through an unmanageably complex trial, instructs those before her to refrain from all outbursts. She brings in the jury and asks the defendants and their attorneys to rise. She reads out loud the first charge on the verdict form—count 10—the conspiracy to commit bribery charge.
Defendant D'Angelo Lee, a friend of Hill's and his former appointee to the city plan commission, stands sheepishly behind his attorney; he appears to be praying. Rickey Robertson, a car dealer, looks confused, as though he doesn't know where he is. Darren Reagan, however, has been here before. Lynn sentenced him to one year in prison after a jury found him guilty in June 2008 of scamming the government by using his elderly mother-in-law as a front to pocket $40,000 in public housing money.
Gone from Hill's face is his trademark gap-toothed grin. He appears solemn, neatly dressed in a dark-blue pinstriped suit, looking more like the lawyer he was trained to be than a defendant. He clasps hands with his wife and co-defendant Sheila Farrington Hill, branded by the prosecution as his former mistress. Ray Jackson, Don's attorney, holds Don's left hand, while Victor Vital, Sheila's attorney, grabs her right. The judge reads the verdict:
"The jury finds the defendant, Donald W. Hill, guilty."
The courtroom remains silent; no one reacts. Lee is the next to be found guilty. Then Sheila. Don gets a better grip on her hand, as if to brace her for the firestorm headed their way.
By the time Lynn finishes, the jury has convicted the defendants on all but six of the 29 counts against them. Don Hill and Lee have each been found guilty of seven counts, Sheila five, Reagan and Robertson two each.
"I don't remember very much on count 10 after she called Sheila's name and said, 'Guilty,'" Don says a day after the trial. "It was so unexpected and so numbing that I really didn't adjust after that."
Several hours after the verdict, juror Nedra Frazier still feels overwhelmed. "Today was very emotional for me and for a lot of us."
Frazier became the final juror after the defense made a last-minute challenge to the racial composition of the jury. Because all the defendants were black, the judge allowed her to be seated as one of four black jurors. Defense lawyers considered her addition a major coup. They figured they had another empathetic juror who would take to heart their arguments that their black clients were being selectively prosecuted for the same kind of conduct that white politicians had gotten away with in Dallas for generations.
But Frazier says race didn't factor into the deliberations. Instead she cites the mountain of damning evidence—wiretaps, transcripts, e-mails, documents, surveillance videos and 44 witnesses—that led jurors to their guilty verdicts. "There were a lot of facts out there," she says.
Sheila Hill couldn't disagree more. A day after the verdict she sat stunned in her lawyer's office, convinced the government had totally failed to prove its case. "The last thing I expected was what we heard [from the jury]."
But Frazier believes there was enough evidence to go around to convict everyone. "Everybody knew what they were doing."
Surprisingly, Frazier rejects the idea that Don Hill was the mastermind behind the entire conspiracy—that the defendants had spun this tangled web, with Hill at its center.
"I think everybody played their part individually," she says.
But that's not what the prosecution would have had the jury believe. Not at all.