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Jurors: We stuck to the evidence



Published: Fri, April 12, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



One juror said 'it was kind of heartbreaking' that the congressman opted to defend himself in court.

By DAVID SKOLNICK

VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER

CLEVELAND -- Jurors who convicted U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. on 10 felony charges said the congressman discounted their intelligence -- and it cost him dearly.

"There were times when he felt he was smarter than us; that he was a congressman and he was above it all and we were not," said Helen J. Knipp of Mansfield, the jury forewoman. "He was trying to confuse us, and he didn't do it."

Jeri A. Zimmerman of Mentor, another juror, said Traficant tried to pass off people as expert witnesses and the jury was able to see right through it.

"He thought we were stupid," she said. "He underestimated our level of intelligence."

The jurors also said Traficant, a Poland Democrat, severely damaged his cause by insisting he defend himself.

"You can't try a case on personality and talking loud and making jokes," said Zimmerman, 40, who works in a bank. "He did himself an injustice. ... It was kind of heartbreaking that he did not have legal counsel. We felt bad for him."

Knipp, a 63-year-old cashier whose husband's profession -- like Traficant's father -- is a truck driver, said the congressman "was handicapped inasmuch as if he had an attorney, the attorney would have known what to do."

Ignored defense: The jurors ignored Traficant's unconventional defense, which they said focused too much on his government conspiracy theory, and concentrated on the evidence.

"We let it go," Knipp said.

Knipp, who had served on a jury in Akron before the Traficant trial and was the oldest person on the congressman's jury, was selected forewoman because she was the only one to volunteer for the position.

After the decision, Traficant said, "There were very few people on this jury who knew Jim Traficant or had an understanding of Jim Traficant, and I think it made a big difference."

He is correct about the jury's not knowing much about him, Knipp said. But the jurors said they went out of their way to be fair to Traficant during deliberations.

"I had never heard of him or knew who he was," said Knipp, who added Traficant was the first congressman she ever met.

Her first impression of the outspoken, colorfully dressed congressman? "He was like any other man; he was there."

The jury deliberated for portions of four days and at times, the discussions got somewhat heated.

Some disputes: "There were disputes during the jury deliberations, mainly with the [racketeering] charge," said Jill Kibler, a 30-year-old Euclid woman who delivers newspapers for a living. "We had doubts and differences on certain issues."

Kibler and Knipp specifically pointed to the accusation that J.J. Cafaro, a prominent Mahoning Valley businessman, gave $13,000 to Traficant in exchange for the congressman helping promote technology developed by a Cafaro-owned company.

Regarding Cafaro, Kibler said, "Some of the stuff [he testified about], we were shady on."

The jury was hung up on some charges during deliberations, but when there was uncertainty, they moved on to the next charge, Knipp said.

When the first vote was taken Tuesday, the second day of deliberations, the jury did not vote unanimously on most of the charges, Zimmerman said.

"We then started over again and discussed everything through," she said.

"We did nothing impulsively," added Knipp. "Everyone had to be totally comfortable with what we were deciding."

The jurors said R. Allen Sinclair, a former administrative counsel to Traficant who said he kicked back $2,500 a month for 13 months to the congressman while working for him, was the most believable witness.

"Sinclair was very credible," Zimmerman said. "He shared his experiences with the congressman and had a lot of [supporting] evidence."

Testimony hurt case: As for Traficant's witnesses, some of their testimony hurt the congressman's case, the jurors said. Kibler and Knipp had kind words for some of Traficant's character witnesses but said their testimony did nothing to help his case.

The most annoying aspect of Traficant's defense, the jurors said, was his attacks on U.S. District Court Judge Lesley Brooks Wells.

"She should be nominated for sainthood," Knipp said. "I can't say I would have been nearly as patient or as kind as she was."

Spending about 10 weeks together brought the 12-member jury close.

"The saving grace [of being away from our families] was we were treated very well and we had a fantastic group of people," Zimmerman said. "We were a family."

The jurors are glad the trial is over and they can get back to their regular lives. Some of them will return to work today while others will resume their professions next week.

"It was a long haul, but we're pleased with our decision," Zimmerman said.

skolnick@vindy.com




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