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Judge on trial for bribery is convicted in 33 mins

As a federal prosecutor told a jury how Wayne County Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones had chosen the “path of corruption,” the soon-to-be convicted jurist was hunched over a legal pad, writing a letter addressed to “Mama.”

Jones handed the lengthy note to his mother during a break between the conclusion of the government’s closing arguments and the beginning of his closing at the U.S. District Court overlooking the Cape Fear River in Wilmington.

Jones’ lead attorney, Joseph Cheshire, who kept a roll of Life Savers in front of him on the defense table during the final arguments, urged the jury to acquit Jones and “strike a blow against [government] overreach.”

Cheshire, a partner at Cheshire Parker Schneider & Bryan in Raleigh, told jurors that what laid ahead was a  “very somber and important choice,” one that would affect Jones for “the rest of his life” and “resonate through the government and the people.”

The gravity of the decision apparently gave the jury little pause.

They deliberated from 10:02 to 10:35 on the morning of Oct. 21, before finding Jones guilty of all three charges he faced.

“It’s disappointing that there were convictions and it happened so fast,” another member of Jones’ four-lawyer defense team, Geoffrey Hulse of Haithcock Barfield Hulse & Kinsey in Goldsboro, said in an interview after the verdict.

“It puts you a little bit in a state of shock,” he added.

Cheshire did not respond to an interview request. And Jones did not want to talk publicly about the verdict, according to Hulse.

John Strong, special agent in charge of the FBI in North Carolina, applauded the speedy conviction, announcing in a written statement: “Corruption will not be tolerated, no matter the level of government, the complexity of the scheme, or the names of those committing the fraud.”

Jones was convicted of paying bribes and gratuities to a public official and attempted corrupt influence of an official proceeding. His sentencing is slated for Jan. 23.

The corrupt influence charge carries the stiffest penalty, which is a maximum of 20 years in prison. The bribery conviction comes with a 15-year maximum sentence. And the max for paying gratuities is two years. All three charges carry fines of up to $250,000.

Following the verdict, Jones and his defense team renewed an earlier motion for judgment of acquittal, arguing that the government failed to legally prove Jones’ guilt. U.S. District Judge James Fox agreed to hear the motion Nov. 7.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Adam Hulbig and William Gilmore convinced the jury during a four-day trial that Jones pressured a local federal task force agent, Matthew Miller, to obtain Verizon records of text messages that Jones’ now-estranged wife exchanged with her colleague in Massachusetts. Jones thought she was having an affair.

Initially, Jones offered to pay for the cost of photocopying the records. But he later agreed to give Miller a couple of cases of Bud Light. When Miller noted that it would be awkward to bring all that beer to courthouse, where the exchange ultimately occurred, they settled on a $100 payment.

The government had a mound of evidence against Jones, including secretly recorded video and audio of him talking with Miller, who became an informant, about obtaining the records. Another video showed Jones descending the courthouse steps in his black robe to retrieve from Miller a CD that he thought contained the private text records.

Cheshire contended that for all the government’s evidence, the prosecution had failed to establish the lynchpin they needed to hold the case together: that Jones knew Miller had to lie to a federal magistrate to secure the search warrant he needed to force Verizon to hand over the records.

Cheshire asserted that the beer and $100 that Jones offered to Miller had nothing to do with bribery but was simply reimbursement for the expenses the agent incurred while tracking down the phone records.

He also suggested that the government targeted Jones because he headed the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which has exonerated 10 convicted felons to date. Jones resigned as chair of the agency after his arrest.

He’s also taken a leave of absence from the bench, according to Hulse, but he faces re-election in November and his name will still appear on the ballot. He won the primary election in March, after he was arrested for bribery and corruption.

“He’s got a lot of support in the community,” Hulse said.

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @NCLWBantz

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