Mistrial in Hornsby fraud case

Jurors are deadlocked on corruption charges

November 29, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

GREENBELT -- The public corruption trial of Andre J. Hornsby ended yesterday without a verdict after jurors remained deadlocked in the case against the former Prince George's County schools chief.

Without a conviction or acquittal on any count, the mis- trial declared by the presiding judge in U.S. District Court marked a high-profile setback for federal prosecutors who charged Hornsby more than a year ago with accepting kickbacks from an educational software saleswoman.

Questions about the financial arrangement between Hornsby, 54, and his then-girlfriend Sienna Owens first came to light in a series of 2004 articles in The Sun.

The U.S. attorney's office for Maryland immediately pledged to retry the case, while Hornsby's defense lawyer vowed that his client would continue fighting every element of the 16-count criminal indictment against him.

"I put it into God's hands," Hornsby, 54, said of the future of the case outside the courthouse late yesterday afternoon.

In interviews, several jurors described the seven days of deliberations as heated at times in debating the guilt or innocence of a public official who once led the state's second-largest school system on a reformist's platform.

"I think that people turned their back on the judge's instructions and the facts in this case," said juror Darren Blumberg, 33, adding that he believed Hornsby was guilty.

One juror lamented the lack of resolution after spending weeks listening to complex testimony and days considering the government's evidence against Hornsby.

"I think it's a real shame," said Ellen White, a government worker from Montgomery County in her 50s who said she believed Hornsby was guilty. "We put a lot of effort into this. ... I hope they retry this because an injustice was done."

But Lavonia Connelly, 43, of Waldorf, said she and others found the government's case wanting. They questioned the reliability of Owens, a chief witness for the prosecution, and wondered why another potential, seemingly critical witness was never called.

"I thought he might have been guilty of some crimes but on others, the government never really proved intent," she said. "Those that thought he was innocent had a point."

More than a week ago, the jury of eight women and four men first indicated they were unable to agree unanimously on any of the charges of mail and wire fraud, evidence tampering, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. They sent a note to Judge Peter J. Messitte and asked for a definition of "reasonable doubt."

The judge rebuffed their request and instructed them on Nov. 20 to return to deliberations that afternoon and again this week, after the long Thanksgiving weekend.

Messitte was traveling yesterday. So it was his colleague, Judge Roger W. Titus, who dismissed the jury after a total of 55 hours of deliberations and formally declared a mistrial, an order that had been approved by Messitte during a closed-door teleconference with lawyers.

According to lawyers in the case, notes between the judge and jury revealed that the panel was split at least 10 to two on every count, though it was unclear which way the split would have gone on any particular charge. Jurors interviewed said there were three or four jurors who favored acquittal on every count.

The kickback case centered on accusations that Hornsby conspired with Owens, who worked for an educational supplies company, to award hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of school contracts to her and a business associate in exchange for kickbacks, and then ordered employees to destroy the evidence.

She later pleaded guilty to a related tax charge and agreed to cooperate with federal agents against him.

Hornsby's attorney vigorously disputed those allegations at trial, saying that, at most, his client is guilty of sloppy recordkeeping.

During the four-week trial, jurors watched a surveillance tape of Hornsby stuffing money into his shirt pocket that had been given to him by a former colleague-turned-FBI informant and heard testimony from his ex-girlfriend about their allegedly illicit agreement.

Dale P. Kelberman, a former federal prosecutor who has handled public corruption investigations, said that from the government's perspective, a mistrial was "like kissing your sister."

"It frustrates prosecutors because you put so much time and effort into these cases," he said. "Anytime you bring a case against a public official, you do so with the utmost care and it's reviewed by senior people, sometimes up to the Justice Department."

The Sun raised questions in 2004 about Hornsby's relationship with LeapFrog SchoolHouse, the educational software firm where Owens worked. At the time, he had not disclosed to Prince George's officials that he lived with Owens. The company received a $1 million contract with Hornsby's school district, and prosecutors allege that Hornsby got half of Owens' $20,000 commission.

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