by Robin Kemp
The federal corruption trial of Clayton County Sheriff’s Office Chief Chaplain and Chief of Staff Mitzi Bickers is underway. A jury was seated and sworn in Wednesday. However, the hearing had not concluded and the jury was not sequestered. Proceedings resumed this morning at 9 a.m.
Bickers faces two counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, three counts of money laundering, four counts of wire fraud, one count of tampering with a witness or informant, and one count of filing a false tax return.
Bickers watched as attorneys questioned prospective jurors before Judge Steve C. Jones during the seven-hour proceedings.
The defense team includes Drew Findling, Marissa Goldberg, and Zachary Kelehar. Federal prosecutors representing the United States are Jeffrey Davis and Tiffany Dillingham.
Federal prosecutors alleged last week that Bickers used a coworker’s phone to call a potential witness in the case, telling the person to ‘get this shit nipped in the bud’ with her trial date nearing, and suggested that all the witness needed to remember was that a third likely government witness fell into the Defendant’s pool.”
Eight women and seven men were selected after questioning, which included whether or not prospective jurors had issues with former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the fact that Bickers is a lesbian and a pastor, or whether they had any opinions stemming from press coverage of the Atlanta City Hall scandal.
Among potential witnesses expected to testify:
- Former Reed administration Chief of Staff Candace Byrd
- Former Atlanta Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza
- Contractor E.R. Mitchell, who pleaded guilty to paying over $1 million in bribes “to an individual in exchange for Cotuy of Atlanta contracts, believing that some of the money would be paid to city officials who exercised influence over the contracting process.”
- Contractor Charles P. Richards, Jr., who pleaded guilty to paying over $185,000 in bribes “to an individual in exchange for Cotuy of Atlanta contracts, believing that some of the money would be paid to city officials who exercised influence over the contracting process.”
- Former Operation Get Out The Vote employee Shandarrick Barnes , who was convicted of throwing a brick with “ER Keep your Mouth Shut” through Mitchell’s window.
On Monday, both sides submitted joint requests to charge, which are proposed instructions that Jones would direct the jury to follow. The 58-page document included some requests the two sides could not agree on.
The instructions offered preliminary instructions on how criminal cases work in general.
- how criminal cases work
- how an anonymous jury should avoid questions about the trial while it is is going on
- the fact that jurors shall not look up things about the case online
- the fact that jurors shall not visit places related to the case during the trial
- the fact that jurors shall not post to social media (including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, or “any similar technology”), text, IM, e-mail, chat, blog, or make phone calls about the case
- not talking to each other about the case until deliberations begin
- avoiding news coverage of the case
- only using the legal definitions the judge gives them
- leaving their notes in the jury room when not in the courtroom
- relying on their individual recollection of the evidence, which means only using their notes to prompt their memory, not to decide the verdict
Part of the instructions explain what will happen during each part of the trial. The jury has to presume Bickers is innocent. Bickers “does not have to prove [her] innocence or produce any evidence at all.” If she chooses not to testify, that has nothing to do with the jury’s deliberations about innocence or guilt.
- The jury “must not be influenced in any way by either sympathy for or prejudice against the Defendant or the Government.”
- The government (federal prosecutors) will give an opening statement, “which is simply an outline to help you understand the evidence as it comes in.”
- The defense may choose whether or not to make an opening statement.
- “Opening statements are neither evidence nor argument.”
- The government presents witnesses that the defense may cross-examine.
- The defense may present witnesses that the government may cross-examine.
- Once all the evidence has been presented, the attorneys will make closing arguments “to summarize and interpret the evidence for you.”
- The judge will instruct the jury on the law.
- The jury can only consider the evidence the judge allows.
- “Evidence” includes witness testimony and exhibits admitted by the judge.
- What the lawyers say is not evidence.
- It doesn’t matter whether the evidence is circumstantial or direct–both count the same during deliberations.
- “‘Circumstantial evidence’ is proof of a chain of facts and circumstances that tend to prove or disprove a fact.”
- “‘Direct evidence’ is the testimony of a person who asserts that he or she has actual knowledge of a fact, such as an eyewitness.”
- The jury will go to the jury room to decide the verdict.
- The jurors will choose a foreperson to direct deliberations and to speak for the jury in court.
- The jury has to decide “whether the Government has proved the specific facts necessary to find [Bickers] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
- “Reasonable doubt” is “a real doubt, based on your reason and common sense after you’ve carefully and impartially considered all the evidence in the case.”
- “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt” means “proof so convincing that you would be willing to rely and act on it without hesitation in the most important of your own affairs.”
- Each juror has to make their own decision as to whether they believed a witness was telling the truth.
- If the government fails to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury “must find [Bickers] not guilty.”
- Jurors must be ready “to reexamine your own opinion and change your mind if you become convinced that you’re wrong. But don’t give up your honest beliefs just because others think differently or because you simply want to get the case over with.”
- If a juror needs to ask the judge a question or convey a message, they write a note and gives it to the marshal.
- The judge will answer as soon as possible, either by writing back or by talking to the jury in the courtroom.
- The jury’s only job is to decide whether or not Bickers committed any of the crimes in the indictment: “You must never consider punishment in any way to decide whether the Defendant is guilty…the punishment is for the Judge alone to decide later.”
- The verdict has to be unanimous.
- Once the jury reaches a verdict, the foreperson fills in the verdict form, signs and dates it, and returns it to the courtroom.
The two sides could not agree on several proposed jury instructions.
Those included the government’s request let jurors know that some witnesses were interviewed by attorneys before the trial started. The defense “objects to this non-pattern instruction as not based on 11th circuit law and appears to call for an improper commentary on facts from the bench.”
The defense wants jurors to consider “whether there was evidence that a witness testified falsely about an important fact,” and “whether there was evidence that at some other time a witness said or did something, or didn’t do or say something, that was different from the testimony the witness gave during his trial.”
The defense also wants the jury to consider whether a witness “has been convicted of a felony or a crime involving dishonesty or a false statement,” and is asking the judge to instruct the jury to decide “whether it was because of an innocent lapse in memory or an intentional deception,” or “whether the misstatement is about an important fact or about an unimportant detail.”
If Bickers testifies, one instruction at issue would be whether jurors “believe the Defendant’s testimony in the same way as that of any other witness.”
The defense also wants the judge to instruct the jury to consider whether “paid informants, witnesses who have been promised immunity from prosecution, witnesses who hope to gain more favorable treatment in their own cases,” or witnesses who were using addictive drugs that may have impaired their memory during events in question, may have a reason to make a false statement in order to strike a good bargain with the Government,” and to consider that testimony “with more caution than other witnesses,” even if the witness is telling the truth.