Rapt jurors heard head-snappingly different narratives Tuesday in closing arguments by prosecutors and defense lawyers on the last day in the eight-week trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. The city’s highest-profile black politician is accused by the federal government of bribery and income tax cheating.
Price, the county’s longest-serving member of the commissioner’s court, is one of four defendants who were indicted by federal authorities in 2014 on 13 counts of bribery conspiracy, mail fraud and income tax evasion. The core of the case against them is an accusation of systematic bribery in which a lobbyist is alleged to have funneled bribes to Price over many years from businesses seeking county contracts and favors.
Lawyer Tom Mills led off Tuesday for the defense, painting Price and his accused co-conspirator, administrative aide Dapheny Fain, as innocent victims of overzealous feds who had failed to prove even the basic elements of the conspiracy they allege.
“Where is the wink, where is the nod?” Mills asked the jury. Most of the jurors locked eyes with him and seemed to follow his every word as Mills ticked back through the government’s case. Speaking in a personal, informal tone, Mills sought to persuade them that prosecutors had never tied the knot necessary to prove Price and Fain guilty, at least not to the legal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
“They want to show you that their case is a brick,” Mills said. “It’s built symmetrically, smoothly. But they don’t want to show you the whole view, because when we get to cross examine them, it’s so thin that it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Nicholas Bunch was formal and methodical in his rebuttal, urging jurors not to get lost in the weeds and to use their common sense. “The defense wants you to believe [Price] can take in approximately $1.1 million over these years, basically double his income every year. He’s got a reason, an excuse, a justification. But not one penny of that money needs to be [reported] on his tax returns.”
Bunch reminded jurors of the almost quarter-million dollars in cash found in a safe in a raid of Price’s Oak Cliff home in June 2011. He reminded them that the FBI also found at his home that day, “Two vehicles, an Avalanche and a BMW, both paid for by a person whose job is to influence government.”
Defense attorney Christopher Monroe Knox apologized to the jury for the tedium of the eight-week trial but said he had felt obligated to question witness after witness on specific documents in order to show that none of them proved a single illegal act: “For what number of years have [federal agents] looked at [Price’s] bank records? Twelve years? And yet not one single transaction has been shown and proven legally as false.”
Bunch and Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Miller didn’t take on the specific faults that the defense picked out in their case, seeking instead to keep the jury’s eyes on the larger pattern. Bunch reminded the jury that this last day of the trial was taking place on tax day, when everybody else in the country had to pay their federal income taxes.
Miller asked the jury to think not about specific transactions so much as all the different ways Nealy and Fain passed money back and forth with Price – cash and checks, split checks, multiple bank accounts, land and auto transactions.
“Think about how Commissioner Price was paid," Miller said. “It was very odd. It's unexplainable. It's bizarre. It's concealing.”
Chief U.S. District Court Judge for Northern Texas Barbara M.G. Lynn has been hard on the government over the course of the trial for failing to turn evidence over to the defense as required by law. She also took prosecutors by surprise Monday by telling them she thought they had failed to prove mail fraud charges against Price – the most onerous of the 13 counts in terms of potential sentencing. Lynn warned that if jurors do convict on those charges she probably will throw out those convictions.
The jury has heard very little of these problems, which were discussed while the jury was out of the courtroom, but Knox did make pointed references in his closing statement to the jury about not being able to get his hands on evidence until later than should have been allowed.
The emotional climax of the day and of the entire trial was offered by lawyer Shirley Baccus-Lobel, head of the defense team, who pleaded with jurors to see Price the way she told them she sees him:
“He has a servant’s heart,” she said. “He really does have a servant’s heart. It hurts me to the very core, hearing someone accuse him of betraying the trust of his constituents, the people of Dallas.”
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Among the almost 100 onlookers in the gallery, at least half appeared to be supporters of Price and Fain, including luminaries such as the Reverend Zan Wesley Holmes, pastor emeritus of St. Luke Community United Methodist Church, and former Dallas City Council member Diane Ragsdale.
As Baccus-Lobel described the kind of man she said she knew Price to be, many women in the crowd softly nodded agreement, some with tears in their eyes. “That kind of man is not the kind of man they tried to show you,” she told the jury.
“I mean it when I say this is in your hands now. Please don’t let this happen. Please don’t let this happen on your watch. It just wouldn’t be right. Hold to your convictions. He has, over the years.”
Lynn dismissed two alternate jurors and instructed the remaining 12 to report Wednesday morning to begin their deliberations.