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Convicted beer bribery judge seeks new trial

It took a jury about 30 minutes to convict former Wayne County Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones of bribing a federal agent with beer and cash. Now, Jones is pushing for a new trial based on his assertions that his trial judge made a disparaging remark about his lead attorney and prevented him from questioning a key witness about his motives.

Meanwhile, assistant U.S. attorney William Gilmore contends that Jones and the four attorneys on his defense team are trying to “undermine his conviction” and attempting to “blame the court for many of his own prior concessions and failed trial strategies.”

Jones was convicted in October of bribing federal task force agent Matthew Miller with the offer of two cases of Bud Light and, later, $100 cash in exchange for text messages that Jones’ wife exchanged with an out-of-state colleague. Jones believed his now-estranged wife was having an affair, according to his attorneys.

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 private records from Verizon. Miller would’ve had to lie about having probable cause to obtain a warrant from a federal magistrate to get the records. Another video showed Jones descending the courthouse steps in his black robe to retrieve a CD from Miller that was supposed to contain the text messages.

Jones argues in his motion for a retrial that he should have been able to tell jurors that he had suppressed warrants in some of Miller’s cases and also that Miller had been the subject of “numerous internal affairs complaints for serious mistreatment of citizens” and was facing a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Jones also asserts that he was deprived of his right to challenge whether Miller was a public official – a key element of two of the three charges that Jones faced: bribery of a public official and paying gratuity to a public official.

Finally, Jones alleges in his motion that a new trial is required because Senior U.S. District Judge James Fox “made an outright comment on the court’s perception of the untrustworthiness of [his] lead lawyer,” Joseph Cheshire of Cheshire Parker Schneider & Bryan in Raleigh, during a bench conversation that was loud enough for the jury to hear.

Fox allegedly said he “did not trust counsel for Mr. Jones” based on Cheshire’s role in a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case that reversed one of Fox’s orders in 1994, according to Jones. He and his defense team moved to have Fox recused from presiding over his trial and asked for a mistrial, but the motion was denied.

Jones and his attorneys assert that Fox’s comment about Cheshire during the trial “suggested to the jury that it should consider the government lawyers more reliable, credible, and trustworthy than counsel for defendant.”

While Fox told the jury to disregard the statement, Jones argues that Fox’s instruction “did not address the lack of trust and corresponding favoritism the court expressed, but instead indicated that defense counsel had violate some rule of evidence or procedure – thereby compounding the prejudice of the argument.”

Attempts to speak with Jones’ attorneys were unsuccessful.

In response to Jones’ motion, Gilmore, the federal prosecutor, wrote that Jones was “convicted on the basis of his own words and actions captured on two videotapes.” He also contended that Jones was attempting to “rewrite history,” asserting that Jones and his attorneys told the court prior to trial that they did not intend to admit evidence suggesting the existence of bad blood between Miller and Jones.

Gilmore added that Fox had issued a pretrial order that addressed the issue and did not bar Jones from inquiring about possible bias arising from Jones’ suppression of a warrant in two of Miller’s cases. But Jones failed to introduce that evidence or pursue that line of questioning at trial, according to Gilmore.

He also contends that Jones was not prohibited from challenging whether Miller was a public official, asserting that prosecutors never argued that the matter was a question of law that should be decided by the court.

“Instead, the government actively urged the court to leave the question of [Miller’s] public official status to the jury, as a question of fact,” Gilmore wrote. He said Fox’s order limited Jones from arguing that Miller could not be a public official because he was designated as a “confidential human source,” but left it to the jury to determine if he was a public official while serving as a federal task force officer.

As for Fox’s statement about Cheshire, Gilmore essentially argued that the remark was inconsequential, noting that Jones could only speculate that the comment had influenced the jury.

Gilmore also said Jones had failed to argue that Fox “manifested any bias against the defendant in particular, or that the court made any other inappropriate comment [at] any other point in the totality of the week-long proceeding.”

While Jones managed to win the primary election following his arrest in the bribery case, he was voted out of office during the Nov. 8 election, losing to challenger Will Bland. He took a leave of absence from the bench in the wake of his arrest and also stepped down as head of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Jones’ attorneys had suggested at trial that he was targeted because of his work on the commission, which investigates innocence claims and has the power to exonerate convicted felons.

If the jury’s verdict stands, Jones will face a maximum of 20 years in prison on his corruption conviction. He bribery conviction carries a 15-year maximum and the max for paying gratuities to a public official is two years. His sentencing is slated for Jan. 23.

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz

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