NEWARK – Sen. Bob Menendez has called his time under indictment and on trial an “odyssey,” and it is easy to see why.
It’s been five years since his friendship with wealthy Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen came under public scrutiny. More than two and a half years since he was indicted. Ten weeks since his trial started.
So could it be, after all this, the senator’s legal journey ends not with a bang, but with a whimper?
That possibility surged closer to reality today, as jurors in the senator’s corruption trial insisted they were deadlocked and could not reach a unanimous verdict. Judge William Walls ordered them to try again starting tomorrow.
“Clearly, there are jurors who believe in my innocence,” Menendez told reporters outside the courthouse this afternoon. “I want to thank them for that, I want to thank all the jurors for their service, but I believe no juror should be coerced.”
Monday started with the fallout from last week’s interviews with former Juror #8, Evelyn Arroyo-Maultsby, and the note she left behind for the judge criticizing the four days of deliberations she participated in. Arroyo-Maultsby even suggested the jury was ready to acquit Melgen on Wednesday but hopelessly at odds over Menendez.
Defense attorneys gingerly prodded Walls to get more information from the jurors, suggesting some of the panel could be influenced by the interviews. There were questions if the deliberation process was contaminated when Arroyo-Maultsby was barred from communicating with the judge or when other jurors may have said they were waiting Arroyo-Maultsby out.
“But where do you go after that?” Walls asked. He repeated a version of this question several times.
When the 12 jurors were brought into the courtroom, Walls asked if they had “read or heard anything about this case.” One juror’s hand tentatively ventured up. After a moment, another hand was up, then a third. Sighing and tilting his head backwards in frustration, a fourth juror made an admission.
“I heard about previous #8,” he said.
Three of the four remaining alternate jurors said they, too had heard about Arroyo-Maultsby’s interviews. But regardless of what Walls found out from the jurors during private chats in his chambers, he sent the original 11 and their new colleague back into the jury room to deliberate at 11 a.m.
Though they were instructed to start deliberations anew, it seems the last week’s divisions were not healed. Just three hours after entering the jury room, the foreman wrote Walls to say they were deadlocked. After a request for guidance, the foreman wrote: “What do we do now?”
This summer’s political parlor game in New Jersey was gaming out the Menendez trial. What will happen if he is acquitted? Convicted? Resigns or is expelled before Gov. Chris Christie leaves? Who’s on the short list to be an interim senator, or front-runner in 2018?
But what if the resolution to Menendez’s case is no resolution at all? What happens if Menendez is not found guilty, but not quite exonerated? Do political leaders in New Jersey – or nationally – who can smell a Democratic Senate in 2018 want to risk a safe seat by running someone still under a legal cloud?
In front of the courthouse today, Menendez said he hopes the jurors fighting to acquit him “stand strong” in the face of their colleagues’ opposition. But it’s Menendez himself who may be in need of fortitude soon. If the jurors hold on and Walls eventually relents and declares a mistrial, Menendez will leave court sometime this week with his head held just high enough to see the question mark hanging over him.