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Bob Menendez trial: Judge declares mistrial after deadlock

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for an ethics review of the Democratic Senator from New Jersey 

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Thursday 16 November 2017 19:19 GMT
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Robert 'Bob' Menendez gets into his car as he departs federal court, 15 November 2017 in Newark, New Jersey, where a mistrial was just declared
Robert 'Bob' Menendez gets into his car as he departs federal court, 15 November 2017 in Newark, New Jersey, where a mistrial was just declared (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A judge has declared a mistrial in the bribery trial against sitting Democratic Senator Bob Menendez.

Jurors deliberated for nearly 15 hours but could not reach the requisite unanimous decision after eleven weeks of testimony, exhibits, and arguments.

In their note to the court the 12 jurors - seven men and five women - wrote: “We cannot reach a unanimous decision...Nor are we willing to move away from our strong convictions.”

US District Court Judge William Walls said: "I find that you are unable to reach a verdict and that further deliberations would be futile and there is no alternative but to declare a mistrial,"

He interviewed each of the jurors individually in his chambers. Out of the two hours spent speaking to jurors, CNN reported Juror #3 was with the judge the longest, for nearly 30 minutes.

Mr Walls determined that none of the jurors would change their minds and thus declared a mistrial.

Within hours of the mistrial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for an ethics review of Mr Menendez.

He said in a statement that the Democrat "is one of only twelve US Senators to have been indicted in our history. His trial shed light on serious accusations of violating the public's trust as an elected official, as well as potential violations of the Senate's Code of Conduct."

He said the investigation should be begin "immediately."

The Senator was facing 18 counts of corruption - conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud - and pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Mr Menendez was accused of accepting illegal gifts from his friend of 25 years, ophthalmologist Dr Saloman Melgen, in exchange for lobbying in the interest of Mr Melgen's business interests in the Senate.

Prosecutors said the Senator accepted more than $600,000 in political contributions, hotel stays in Paris, and multiple rides Mr Melgen's private jet in exchange for getting US visas for Mr Melgen's girlfriends, assisting with the doctor's Medicare billing dispute that amounted to $8.9 million, and helping with a port security contract in the Dominican Republic in Mr Melgen's name.

Both those instances - the Medicare billing dispute and the issue between the doctor and the port authority on the island - were resolved in Mr Melgen's favour, argued prosectors.

The Senator's attorneys said he was more concerned that drug companies were unfairly benefiting in the Medicare billing dispute and that port security was a larger area of concern for the New Jersey Democrat.

Mr Menendez was also charged with lying on government forms for not declaring the value of any of these as gifts, as required by government officials.

The defence argued that the two men were friends for so long that these were not official gifts and were not given or received with any intent of political favours. They called Senators Cory Booker and Lindsay Graham, a Republican, to the witness stand to vouch for their colleagues' character as well.

One excused juror, according to the Washington Post, said last week that she would have voted for an acquittal of Mr Menendez but said the case would likely end in a hung jury.

Prosecutors had asked Mr Walls to instruct the jury to issue a partial verdict - separating the charges to ensure some sort of conviction or definitive verdict.

However, Mr Walls said that could lead the court down a "slippery slope of coercion" and decided all the charges needed to be taken into account together.

The legal precedent used by Mr Walls to judge this case was established earlier this year in a US Supreme Court case against former Republican Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell, whose conviction was overturned.

That precedent made it difficult for prosecutors as it determined the standard for a crime in these cases was an explicit "quid pro quo" - a gift for a political favour.

US Department of Justice prosecutors in Mr Menendez's case did not have a proverbial 'smoking gun' to meet that standard, according to at least some of the jurors.

Mr Menendez's Democratic seat in the Senate has been critical and if he had stepped down or been convicted before mid-January 2018, outgoing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie - a Republican - could have appointed a Republican to his seat, per state rules.

It remains unclear at this time whether the case will be tried again with a new jury, but the DOJ may face some political pressure to put the Senator in the courtroom again.

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