Bridgegate trial gets heated over jury’s questions about convictions

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NEWARK, N.J. -- The emotion in the Bridgegate trial was so high on Tuesday that at one point the judge had to warn one lawyer to curb his "involuntary actions" to which the judge took offense.

It was part of a back and forth between the judge, the Honorable Susan Wigenton, and lawyers for defendants Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, over questions sent out of the jury deliberation room.

Tuesday was the first full day of deliberations, and the questions indicated that jurors are efficiently reviewing the charges, taking them seriously, and may fairly quickly reach a verdict.

It's a case that has involved New Jersey governor Chris Christie in many ways. He's not on trial, but his name is on many important aspects of the case, whose details were very much center stage on Tuesday.

Christie appointee and high school classmate David Wildstein, a senior manager at the Port Authority, which operates the George Washington Bridge, ordered workers to intentionally block access to the bridge in September 2013. It was a move that caused days-long traffic backups.

It was retaliation against Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Ft. Lee, where the bridge is anchored. Wildstein admitted to it, and has become the key witness against the two people he said ordered him to carry out the bridge closure: Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, a Christie friend and appointee.

Kelly and Baroni have been on trial on conspiracy, fraud and civil rights charges for six weeks. Now that the case is in the hands of the jurors, it's not going away quietly.

"Usually, a jury is a black box," said Stuart Green, a professor at Rutgers Law School. "One circumstance in which we do get a glimpse into what they may be thinking about or talking about is when they have questions for the judge."

Green is also a seasoned trial expert, who commented on the questions the jury sent out from the deliberation room to the judge, seeking guidance in reaching a verdict.

The first jury question was about Wildstein providing information to prosecutors about the bridge closure before Kelly or Baroni knew that he was cooperating with the U.S. attorney's office.

"Is it legal to prepare a case without the defendant's knowledge or legal representation?" the jury asked. Upon receiving the question, Kelly's and Baroni's attorneys battled the judge to tell jurors "no."

Instead, she said yes, to the consternation of defense counsel.

However, it was Question Number 2 from the jury room that got the defense lawyers hot.

The question was, "Can you be guilty of conspiracy without the act being intentionally punitive toward Mayor Sokolich?"

Lawyers for Kelly and Baroni, Michael Critchley and Michael Baldassare, respectively, insisted the answer is no.

When the judge said yes, Critchley angrily replied to the bench, "You're directing a verdict of guilty."

"It's a little bit over-the-top way to speak to a federal judge," said Green, the Rutgers Law professor.

"It's also, of course, where [defense lawyers] are waging the battle of the media," Green continued, "and to the extent that they can convince there's a problem here, I guess that's part of their strategy as well."

That strategy, Green said, could be helpful if the defendants are found guilty and have to appeal.

Jurors had a third question, later in the afternoon. They asked if they could convict the defendants of deliberately causing traffic jams if they acquit them of conspiring to do so.

The judge's response to them that each of the nine charges against Baroni and Kelly is an independent charge, and can be considered as such.

Deliberations ended at 4:30 p.m., and are scheduled to continue Wednesday, and every weekday until a verdict is reached.