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Carona convicted on 1 count; 5 acquittals

January 16, 2009 11:01:08 AM PST
A jury stunned a Santa Ana courtroom Friday, acquitting former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona of corruption. But he's not out of the woods just yet.Fifty-three-year-old Michael Carona was visibly emotional as one after another "not guilty" verdicts were announced. But he was found guilty on one count of felony witness tampering.

Michael Carona left the courthouse saying his next step will be to try to find a job. His attorneys worked pro bono on the case. The case to defend him, he says, was $3 million, which he can't afford to pay. His attorneys say this is not the end. They still plan to appeal for one conviction.

Carona, with his wife and attorneys by his side, left the courthouse a truly grateful man as jurors found him not guilty of conspiring to use his office to take bribes and kickbacks in return for favors.

"If you all don't believe in miracles, if you don't believe in God, what you just witnessed was an absolute miracle and God is watching over me," said Carona.

Just before noon, the former Orange County Sheriff broke down as the court clerk read the first not-guilty verdict on conspiracy, not-guilty on three counts of mail fraud, and not-guilty on witness tampering. Carona sobbed and placed his head down on the table. The only guilty verdict was read for a second count of witness tampering.

Jurors found Carona did try to persuade his former friend Don Haidl to withhold testimony and mislead a grand jury. The conversation was secretly taped by Haidl, the businessman cooperating with prosecutors as part of a plea deal. Jurors say the case hinged on those secret tapes. One juror referred to a conversation between Carona and Haidl.

"He said no, he's coaching him, and then he said, 'Hey, whoever goes first on the stand, your story is my story.' Now that, to us, was witness tampering," said "Jim," a juror on the case.

The tapes are laced with profanity and use of the "N" word. The only African-American juror admits it was hard to keep an open mind but he did by looking at more than 60 overt acts allegedly committed by Carona.

"We had to prove an overt act in order to prove conspiracy and we couldn't prove an overt act," said "Jerome," another juror.

Jurors say the statute of limitations of five years had run out so they could not take into account many of the overt acts presented to them. Otherwise, one juror said, the outcome might have been different.

"Mike Carona did something," said "Jerome." "His hand was in the cookie jar. He was just smart enough to wipe his hands clean."

Prosecutors say that they were pleased on getting the one conviction and disappointed with the other not-guilty counts. They also say they plan to revisit the two other cases that have yet to be tried.

Debra Hoffman, the alleged former mistress of Mike Carona, has yet to be tried. Also, Mike Carona's wife Deborah Carona has yet to be tried. Prosecutors have to decide whether to continue on with those cases or whether to dismiss the charges.

Carona awaits sentencing. He faces anything from probation to 10 years in prison.


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