NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The jury in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case is asking the judge about an issue at the heart of the government’s case.
Two former allies of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are charged with scheming to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse Christie in 2013. Jurors are in their first full day of deliberations after a six-week trial.
Jurors sent a question to the judge asking whether the defendants can be convicted of conspiracy even if they didn’t believe the lane closures were meant to punish the mayor.
Defense lawyers argued Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and former Port Authority executive Bill Baroni can’t be found guilty if a punishment plot wasn’t proved.
The judge disagreed and said she would tell jurors the defendants can be found guilty of conspiracy regardless of their motive.
But Kelly’s defense said the judge’s answer to the jury’s question was “directing a verdict of guilty,” CBS2’s Meg Baker reported.
It was the second question that jurors sent the judge Tuesday morning.
They earlier questioned the government’s interviews with former Port Authority official David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty last year, and asked “is it legal to prepare a case without defendant’s knowledge and legal representation?”
The judge said it was legal.
Kelly and Bill Baroni were named in a nine-count indictment in 2015 on charges they schemed to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie. They face up to 20 years in prison on the most serious counts.
In an emotional presentation that lasted more than two hours, defense attorney Michael Critchley cast Kelly as a single mother faced with an administration more concerned with keeping Christie’s nascent presidential hopes alive than with exposing the truth when details of the scandal surfaced three years ago.
In a rebuttal summation, a prosecutor urged jurors to ignore the insinuations about Christie and others and focus on the evidence against the two defendants, which he called “devastating.”
Kelly and Baroni testified that they believed Wildstein when he told them the realignment of access lanes to the bridge in September 2013 was part of a traffic study. Massive gridlock ensued, and Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich’s pleas went unanswered for four days, on orders from Wildstein, the defendants testified.
Critchley on Monday called Wildstein, a high school classmate of Christie, “the Bernie Madoff of New Jersey politics.” Wildstein testified that both Kelly and Baroni were fully aware of the scheme to punish Sokolich.
In his closing argument Friday, Baroni’s attorney assailed Wildstein as Christie’s hatchet man and a liar whose testimony shouldn’t be trusted.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna countered Monday that Baroni changed his story about the traffic jams at least three times, including in front of a legislative committee probing the closures in 2013.
He said emails and texts among the three co-conspirators corroborated Wildstein, including a text Kelly sent him during the week of the gridlock that read, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Kelly testified she was pleased Wildstein told her the traffic study was proceeding well.
“Don’t let them whitewash it,” Khanna said. “It’s as outrageous as it sounds.”
Kelly wrote the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email the month before the lane closures. She testified she deleted that email and others because she was scared people in Christie’s administration who knew of the lane closures weren’t being forthcoming.
Christie wasn’t charged and denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the plot.
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