Attorneys for convicted fraudster Russell Laffitte filed a motion earlier this week asking a federal judge to seal yet another juror affidavit in their bid for a new trial for the disgraced banker. Unlike the previous two affidavits submitted to the court, though, this third affidavit – or sworn statement – came from a member of the reconstituted jury that Laffitte guilty on all six of the charges brought against him last month by federal prosecutors in the office of U.S. attorney Adair Ford Boroughs.
Actually, this affidavit “was prepared by the foreperson of the jury,” according to the latest filing (.pdf) from Laffitte’s lawyers … an individual who voted to convict Laffitte.
Laffitte, 51, of Hampton, S.C. was the former chief executive officer of Palmetto State Bank (PSB). Last month, he was found guilty of bank fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and misapplying bank funds related to his role in the alleged financial scams of disbarred lawyer/ accused killer Alex Murdaugh. Specifically, Laffitte profited by helping Murdaugh rip off his clients – and then helped Murdaugh cover his tracks with loans that never should have been issued and payouts that never should have been made.
Laffitte’s lawyers – Bart Daniel and Matt Austin – are seeking a new trial for their client based on some questionable eleventh hour jury reshuffling by U.S. district court judge Richard Gergel. According to a filing (.pdf) submitted earlier this month, they claim two jurors were “improperly dismissed” by Gergel during deliberations on November 22, 2022.
Moments before being replaced, one of the jurors submitted a note to Gergel indicating they were “feeling pressured to change (their) vote.”
Upon receiving this note, Gergel told prosecutors and defense attorneys “my instinct is that we have alternates and we should get to a verdict.”
“Following nearly ten hours of deliberations, two jurors were improperly dismissed and replaced with alternates, only to have a newly constituted jury return a guilty verdict forty minutes later,” Daniel and Austin wrote. “One of those jurors requested removal based on her dissenting status, and the error in her removal constitutes a miscarriage of justice.”
The government has fired back against this assertion, claiming Gergel “did not abuse (his) discretion by replacing two jurors.”
“The record clearly demonstrates that the court, after inviting the parties’ input, appropriately exercised its discretion to empanel two alternate jurors to replace jurors who could no longer serve,” a December 21 filing (.pdf) from prosecutors Emily Limehouse, Winston Holliday and Kathleen Stoughton noted.
This news outlet addressed the jury drama extensively in our recap of the Laffitte verdicts. Days after the trial, a transcript (.pdf) was released documenting the jurors’ removal – or at least the discussion of it that took place in open court.
What transpired behind closed doors, though?
Sources familiar with the first two affidavits told this news outlet they detailed the “chaos” which overtook the jury’s deliberations – including alleged bullying on the part of certain jury members against two most vocal holdouts against convicting Laffitte.
Obviously, firsthand accounts from these two jurors citing pressure to change their votes would be critical components of Laffitte’s bid for a new trial. But an affidavit from the jury foreperson affirming these accounts – or at the very least raising questions about the process by which they were removed – could prove even more decisive.
It is not immediately clear what the foreperson’s affidavit would stipulate, but sources familiar with the document say the individual – who voted to convict Laffitte – was “upset with how it all went down.”
My news outlet has been careful not to go overboard in criticizing Gergel for his jury reshuffling.
“I believe Gergel was placed in an impossible position by what transpired in the jury room,” I noted last month, adding the judge attempted “to be as transparent as possible in his handling of this unique jury situation.”
“I think we are on virgin territory,” Gergel said as the drama unfolded. “I’ve tried a hundred cases myself and I’ve been on the bench for thirteen years, I’ve never had this experience.”
Still, it seems clear from the transcript that a pre-Thanksgiving time crunch was part of what motivated Gergel’s decision to replace the jurors – a time crunch to which the judge contributed. Readers will recall an entire day of court was canceled on November 17 because the judge attended an investiture ceremony in Washington, D.C. for newly installed U.S. circuit court judge J. Michelle Childs.
Assuming Laffitte’s lawyers succeed in getting him a new trial, there is no guarantee it will go any better for him than the first one. As I have frequently noted, Limehouse, Holliday and Stoughton delivered “an absolute tour de force” at last month’s trial, “methodically, meticulously making a compelling case on each of the six charges.”
Prosecutors “introduced damning documents and elicited incriminating testimony not only from government witnesses, but also from many of the witnesses called to the stand on Laffitte’s behalf.”
Meanwhile, Laffitte’s effort to prove a broader conspiracy – one in which he was a mere “pawn” of Murdaugh and others – largely fell flat.
In addition to deciding Laffitte’s fate, this trial also had significant impacts on the upcoming double homicide trial of Alex Murdaugh. Specifically, it helped provide state prosecutors with their theory of motive in that case – in which Murdaugh stands accused of savagely slaying his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and their younger son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh.
Murdaugh’s double homicide trial is set to begin on January 23, 2023 in Walterboro, S.C.
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THE FILING …
(Via: U.S. District Court)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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