Price Trial Consensus So Far, Defense Lawyers Brilliant Unless They Lose

Defense lawyer Tom Mills and his client, Dapheny Fain, administrative assistant to Dallas County Commissioner John WIley Price.
Defense lawyer Tom Mills and his client, Dapheny Fain, administrative assistant to Dallas County Commissioner John WIley Price.
Brian Maschino
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Thursday as the seventh day of jury deliberations in the John Wiley Price trial crawled to yet another inconclusive end, you could feel the tension in the air, both in the courthouse corridor and out in the community. In both places, nobody has the slightest idea what it means.

The federal corruption trial of the county’s highest profile African-American officeholder went faster than anyone had expected – only eight weeks instead of the projected 12 or 16. But the jury deliberations are taking longer than anyone had expected.

So he walks? He walks on some of the 11 counts against him but not all? Or are they in there running up the score on him, ready to hit him with a load of bricks?

In the corridor outside the courtroom of Chief U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn yesterday, a person who is not a member of the media asked a row of weary reporters perched like birds on a wire if any of them wanted to start a betting pool. All nodded no instantly and solemnly.

It’s not a game. Whatever this jury decides will have a powerful impact on the city, given the defendant’s controversial history, the near reverence with which he is regarded by his supporters and the near hatred that his detractors feel for him.

And then there’s this: No one has the slightest idea which way to bet.

As the clock ticked slowly toward the hour appointed for the jury’s departure, reporters sat on wooden benches in the hall, legs arched over snarls of charger cables on the floor, staring at their phones or tapping away on tablets. They broke an intent silence only for brief bursts of chattiness, usually about dumb media consultants or good hair stylists, almost never about the trial.

Away from the courthouse, people with their own reasons for watching the trial closely were engaging in a strange analysis, trying to explain what the government had done right or had done wrong, depending. The object seemed to be finding some way to be right, no matter what. But it’s a big what.

Among the non-journalists I spoke with yesterday, a good deal of attention was being paid to evidence and testimony that was not brought to bear during the trial. For example, the government did show the jury some evidence dealing with a 2006 controversy over a special tax district. In that chapter, the government has accused Price of opposing creation of the district because he had been bribed to do so.

But the best of that evidence seems never to have made it into the trial. Specifically, former Dallas City Council member Bill Blaydes has been telling a hair-raising tale for several years of Price bullying him over the proposed free trade zone or FTZ. The FTZ was associated with a huge shipping center development called The Inland Port that the government claims Price was seeking to stall.

The government accuses Price of taking money from his political consultant, who took money from the Perot family interests, who wanted to see the shipping center stalled because it would have competed with their own interests. Given the steps involved – Perots give money to Nealy, Nealy gives money to Price, Price stalls FTZ— it feels a little like the song, “The House that Jack Built.”

Commissioner Price enters the federal courthouse.EXPAND
Commissioner Price enters the federal courthouse.
Brian Maschino

But the Blaydes story – of Price practically threatening to beat him up – would seem like the natural hard connection to illustrate the true nature of the scheme. And yet, even though Blaydes was on the government’s original witness list, he was nowhere in this trial.

And speaking of missing faces, what about the city’s powerful Perot family? The government's version of the alleged bribery scheme seemed strangely truncated: Price's consultant, Kathy Nealy, who is to be tried later, and his administrative assistant, Dapheny Fain, are accused of providing Price with a "stream of benefits" in a corrupt arrangement designed to get Price to vote or behave in ways he would not have save for the stream. But where did the stream come from?

In the case of the Inland Port, the obvious end-to-end linkage was from the Perot interests to Price, but the only portion of that stream that was presented to the jury was from Nealy to Price. No one associated with the Perots was indicted or ever even named as a target of investigation.

The obvious conclusion is that the government didn't believe the Perot interests broke the law. Perot executives did testify early in the trial and did tell the jury they wanted Nealy to persuade Price to stall the project. Former Dallas County Judge Jim Foster told the jury that Price was able to stall the project for more than a year.

No one said this to the jury, but that period of time, the year Price was able to delay the project, turned out to be all important. During that time the national economy cratered, and major customers who had been lined up to get into the project walked away. Meanwhile the Perots used their immense lobbying power in Austin to steer billions of dollars in public infrastructure toward their competing shipping center north of Fort Worth, stealing the competitive edge from the Dallas project.

The government did make the case to the jury that by bending to the will and money of the Perots, Price was betraying his own constituency, helping them seriously wound a major potential source of sorely needed employment for Price’s southern Dallas constituency. But the point was made softly, even a bit inconclusively, as if it was more important to the government to cut off the stream of culpability at the level of Nealy than to win a guilty verdict.

And what are the jurors asking each other about it? Are they buying the government’s theory, that the bribery scheme began and ended with Nealy and Price? Or are they spending days locked in that jury room playing a game of Where’s Waldo?

And then there is the all important element of lawyering. What I am beginning to hear out there is a growing consensus that the defense lawyers in this trial did a marvelous job while the government’s team limped along. Of course, nobody wants to be quoted praising the defense yet, not before observers can see which way the jury goes. If the verdict is guilty, then everybody will have to recalibrate and come up with a theory for why the defense did such a terrible job and the government was so brilliant.

We wait and know nothing, in other words.

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