NEW ORLEANS -- The much-anticipated corruption trial of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was suddenly – and surprisingly – delayed Thursday, just four days before it was supposed to begin.
U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan pushed the trial back to Jan. 27, saying she agreed with a motion filed eight days ago by Nagin’s attorney asking for more time to review the mountains of documentary evidence against his client.
She said a failure to delay the trial “would likely result in the miscarriage of justice.”
It was surprising to see the judge make the ruling so close to the trial, especially since she was only willing to give Nagin a three-week delay when he had asked for a longer one in September. Also, Jenkins made his latest motions to either dismiss the charges or delay the trial on Oct. 16, and Berrigan denied the dismissal request in a matter of days, but waited more than a week to grant the delay.
She may have been waiting to see if plea negotiations bore fruit before she took away the specter of an immediate trial, an obvious incentive to get the two sides talking. Nagin was in town Tuesday and sources close to the case confirmed to Eyewitness News that there was an offer still on the table for Nagin to get five years or less in prison. But as had been the case in the days leading up to the indictment last January, Nagin was not ready to accept a deal.
But WWL Legal Analyst Jason Williams said the timing suggested some evidence emerged in the last week, since the parties’ last pretrial conference, that was more voluminous or complex than expected.
“Certainly, a judge of this caliber -- and Judge Berrigan is a very, very thorough judge -- she saw something that led her to believe that in order for Mayor Nagin to get a fair trial, she had to continue this case,” Williams said. “We’ll find out later exactly what that was.”
It’s critical to note that both sides had to turn over their trial exhibits, or demonstrable evidence, by Monday of this week. That means that while Nagin and Jenkins have had huge amounts of documentary evidence to review since June, they – along with the judge -- actually got to see only in the last few days the actual exhibits the prosecutors were planning to use at trial.
Berrigan noted in her written reasons for the delay that several of the 59 overt acts prosecutors allege were done in furtherance of a conspiracy did not actually involve Nagin directly. That, she said, made it even more important that Nagin’s defense team get more time to look into the details of those allegations.
Meanwhile, if a plea still cannot be negotiated by January, Williams said Nagin may have gotten a leg up by getting to review the government’s trial exhibits for three more months.
“The element of surprise that the government had going into the trial for next week, that's been taken away because now Nagin and his defense team are going to be reviewing that evidence and coming up with a defense strategy and answers for all of those things,” he said.
At the same time, it could work in the government’s favor if a sober review of all of the prosecution’s evidence convinces Nagin to give up the fight and cop a plea.
Jenkins did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
The 21-count indictment alleges that Nagin engaged in a criminal conspiracy involving free trips and inside deals; accepted $132,500 in bribes along with truckloads of free granite for his family business; deprived the public of its right to receive his honest services; laundered the money he received; and falsely reported his income on his tax returns.
Seven people, including city vendors and officials in Nagin’s administration, have already been convicted of participating in the alleged scheme and are expected to testify against him at trial. Six are listed as co-conspirators, according to court records.
Nagin steadfastly maintains his innocence, although he has not yet offered a defense for the specific charges he’s facing.
He did address some of the allegations in 2009, when I confronted him about the free trips to Hawaii and Jamaica that he and his family had received from a city vendor. He said at the time that he thought a member of his administration, Greg Meffert, was paying for the trips when it was actually Mark St. Pierre, a subcontractor making millions of dollars from city work through a no-bid arrangement.