Federal Judge Price Marshall announced at the beginning of what was to be the first day of Gilbert Baker’s bribery trial that a member of the jury had tested positive over the weekend for COVID-19 and the jury has been asked to deliberate on how they wish to proceed.
My report is from Debra Hale-Shelton, covering the trial for the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network during a 15-minute recess for the jury to deliberate and report their thoughts. The judge has already named one alternative to replace the juror who tested positive.
It’s unclear at this point what stance the prosecution and defense will take on proceeding.
Baker, a former senator and state Republican Party chair, is accused of amassing political contributions from nursing home owner Michael Morton to funnel to judicial candidates, particularly Michael Maggio. Maggio is now serving a federal sentence after pleading guilty to taking the money in return for reducing a $5.2 million nursing home negligence verdict against a home owned by Morton to $1 million. Morton has not been charged.
The jury was selected last week. Opening statements were scheduled this morning.
UPDATE: None of the jurors expressed concerns about continuing when polled individually by the judge and the trial began with an alternate. Defense counsel had raised a suggestion about testing jurors, but the judge noted the most reliable test would take five days. He said jurors might want to consider getting tested tonight. The judge is requiring masks in the courtroom.
Julie Peters, for the government, said Mike Maggio would testify but his testimony would not be the only evidence. She said there’d be corroborating evidence, including Baker’s frequent phone time with Morton and Maggio at critical times. She also mentioned that another recipient of Morton’s judicial campaign money, Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood and Baker, also were texting frequently but those text messages had all been deleted and both Baker and Wood say they cannot remember what was said. Peters noted Baker began raising money for Maggio and Wood before the legal time for campaign contributions in judicial races. She also noted the PACs Baker created to funnel money to judicial candidates included fake addresses for putative officers of the committees, some of whom will say they didn’t know they were officers of a PAC.
Annie Depper, one of Baker’s lawyers, said there’d be no direct evidence of a bribe or quid pro quo and, by way of character apparently, she said Baker was a conservative Republican who’d also worked for Governor Hutchinson and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. She also will produce a text message from Baker to Maggio that said Morton would support him “win, lose or draw,” supposedly evidence that Maggio should decide the nursing home case without the influence of Morton’s money. She also raised Maggio’s effort to withdraw his guilty plea and a statement at the time that he’d initially pleaded guilty under government threat to also indict his wife, who handled some of his campaign.
Depper, in defense, also said Maggio had “struggled” to reach his decision lowering the verdict in the Morton nursing home case and in the course of reaching that decision, consulted Rhonda Wood, then a Court of Appeals judge, and Circuit Judge Tim Fox.
That might not be a foolproof defense. Julie Peters had noted that there was evidence that Wood, Baker, Morton and Maggio’s campaign consultant, Clint Reed, had all participated in a meeting about judicial candidates. Morton ultimately put almost $50,000 into Wood’s race for Supreme Court and more than $20,000 in Maggio’s.