Case against Young `just wasn't clear'

Too much confusion gave jurors no choice but to acquit, they say

September 26, 1999|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

The public corruption case against Larry Young seemed to have it all: Envelopes of cash. A Harvard-trained doctor ready to swear he made payoffs. Canceled checks emblazoned with the initials "LY," signifying alleged bribe money went to the once powerful state senator from Baltimore.

But in the end, there were too many unanswered questions, too much confusion and too many state witnesses who simply couldn't be believed, prompting jurors in Anne Arundel County late Friday to acquit Young on four counts of bribery and one count of tax evasion.

For the jurors, prosecutors failed to tell a convincing story of how the General Assembly's leading health care legislator allegedly used his position to take more than $72,000 from a health care company that was trying to secure a piece of the state's lucrative Medicaid market.

"It just wasn't clear," one juror said.

With so much confusion in the courtroom, so much doubt about what they were hearing from witnesses and prosecutors, and with a man's future at stake, jurors said they had no choice but to vote for an acquittal.

"It's somebody's life you're dealing with," said juror Kurk Hess, 38, a Crofton contractor.

According to Hess and other jurors who were huddled in a third-floor room of the Annapolis courthouse, the 5 1/2 hours of deliberations before the verdict at 6: 05 p.m. were relatively calm.

There were no scenes from "Twelve Angry Men." No shouting matches. No arm-twisting.

Instead, after sitting through seven days of testimony, listening to nearly 30 prosecution witnesses and seeing dozens of state exhibits, the jurors calmly and methodically went through their notes from the trial. They expressed their thoughts about the case and came to the same conclusion -- not guilty.

"We wanted to be sure that everyone had the chance to say what they felt," said Hess, who added that in the end, they unanimously agreed that State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli had simply failed to prove the case.

Difficult case to follow

From the start, the case was on shaky ground.

Public corruption cases are notoriously difficult to prove. Witnesses are few. Records are frequently destroyed. The cases involve complicated paper trails. Some cases are so convoluted that they are difficult for prosecutors and investigators to follow -- let alone jurors. The case against Young was no different.

To overcome the complexities, prosecutors frequently try to develop a simple story for jurors, a narrative they can easily follow. But jurors said Montanarelli never gave them a sense of who Young was, why he was so politically powerful, and what was at stake for the company at the center of the case -- Diagnostic Health Imaging Systems Inc. (DHIS), a Prince George's County radiology firm that was desperately trying to become a health maintenance organization.

"We looked at the same checks too many times," said Kristopher Fraser, 30, a juror who manages the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis. "There was no continuity to the case. They were bouncing all over the place."

Fraser said the jurors believed that Young "probably got the money" but that the proof never became clear to them.

Montanarelli appeared uncomfortable before the jury as he explained the bribery and extortion counts and rattled off dates when DHIS supposedly paid Young and one of his political aides. He touched upon some themes -- a company in financial trouble, a politician who could help -- but he never fully developed the story for the jury.

"This is not an easy case to understand," Montanarelli said toward the end of his opening statement.

It was a remark that would resonate with jurors.

By contrast, Young's defense attorney seemed to connect with the jurors. Gregg L. Bernstein told them that his client was a hard-working man who lived with his 86-year-old mother and tried to help his minority constituents in West Baltimore throughout his political career.

"Larry Young is not a person of expensive tastes. He does not live in an expensive home. He does not ride in expensive cars," Bernstein told the jurors. "In most regards, he leads a very simple life."

Bernstein then focused on what he saw as the weaknesses of the state's case, and he stuck to those themes throughout the trial: The state's star witness, Dr. Christian Chinwuba, the owner of DHIS, was a man "not to be believed." He didn't tell the truth when prosecutors first asked him about payments to Young, so why should jurors believe him now?

Chinwuba and other state witnesses received immunity deals from the state, and only then did they begin to say Young extorted bribes from them. DHIS officers accused Young to cover up their own embezzlement scheme and to account for more than $650,000 in checks that were made out to "cash."

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