A simmering, closed-door legal argument over the judge’s charge in the Bridgegate trial this morning led to an abrupt and mysterious cancellation of the session that was supposed to see defense attorneys present their closing arguments. After federal Judge Susan D. Wigenton sent the jurors home–with no explanation beyond that a “legal issue” had come up–lawyers for both sides were uncharacteristically closed-lipped about the reason.
Judge Wigenton gave her charge Wednesday and defense lawyers, while refusing to speak publicly, were unhappy about two sections–one dealing with the application of a statute generally used in civil, rather than criminal, cases and the other about motive.
One of the media outlets that paid for daily transcripts of the trial and had access to what was recorded at closed conferences reported earlier this week that Judge Wigenton ruled in a closed session with lawyers that prosecutors did not have to prove that defendants Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni misused resources of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey with the specific intent of punishing Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich–just that they misused those resources.
That issue appeared to be resolved Wednesday morning. However, after court adjourned that day–and after the judge’s charge–sources close to the defense expressed unhappiness about how Wigenton spoke of the federal civil rights statute Baroni and Kelly are charged with violating.
The judge said that the jury had to find that the defendants’ behavior was “egregious and outrageous” enough to “shock the conscience” of the jury members–a standard usually not used in the context of a criminal jury charge. In pretrial motions, Critchley has argued–unsuccessfully–that there is no precedent for criminalizing the creation of traffic reasons–for whatever reason.
The sense among defense attorneys was that the judge’s charge rendered much of their efforts during the testimony phase of the trial useless. Michael Critchley, Kelly’s lawyer, was quoted in one published report as saying he had based his entire defense on the charge that his client conspired to close down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish Sokolich.
“I thought I was defending a charge that, at its core, beginning to end, was an allegation that Bridget Kelly and Mr. Baroni entered into activity to intentionally punish (Fort Lee) Mayor Sokolich for not endorsing. I thought that’s what we were doing for the last six weeks. Now, I don’t know what I’m defending,” said Critchley, according to the published report.
Critchley today, however, refused to speak to the press when he left the courtroom–a very unusual move for a voluble attorney who generally gives at least two impromptu press conferences a day during the trial.
The court session, scheduled to begin at 9:30, was delayed for more than a half hour while Wigenton met with judges.
The postponement of the trial–after the jury arrived–and the sensitivity shown by the lawyers’ refusal even to talk informally with the suggested the issue was serious. Wigenton has indicated to the jurors Wednesday she would discuss jury instructions again before they begin deliberations–and so she has left open a way of curing possibly serious legal errors before the jury reaches a decision.
In court Wednesday, both Critchley and Jennifer Mara, an attorney for Baroni, said they were “preserving” their rights to object to the judge’s charge. The comments appeared to annoy Wigenton who had apparently told then in private sessions that their objections would be “preserved.”
The defense’s emphasis on their continuing objections telegraphs their post-trial strategy on appeal. The canceled session Thursday suggests the judge is taking those objections seriously enough to review her ruling.