Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James has again fallen short in his efforts to upend his conviction on corruption charges, this time on the ground of alleged juror deceit.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Tuesday dispatched the argument that a juror lied by failing to reveal that his parents worked for the city of Newark and that his stepfather supported James politically.
James claimed both bits of information, learned well after trial, made for an incentive to convict him, since the parents’ employment carried over to the city’s new mayoral administration, headed by James’ rival Cory Booker.
The court didn’t see it that way. "If anything, the fact that [the] stepfather had supported James’s campaign would tend to support a bias in favor of James," the panel said in U.S. v. James, 11-4116, adding that his parents "were two employees in a municipal workforce of over 4,000 persons and thus had only an attenuated connection to James."
James served 20 years in office before his 2006 ouster by Booker.
The following year, James was indicted on 25 criminal counts for helping his mistress, Tamika Riley, buy nine city-owned properties cheaply in order to resell them for immense profit.
In April 2008, James was convicted by a jury in Newark federal court of conspiracy, mail fraud and other charges, and later sentenced by U.S. District Judge William Martini to 27 months’ imprisonment.
In April 2011 — a year after his release from prison after serving 18 months — James moved for a new trial under Rule of Criminal Procedure 33, which allows for such relief based on newly discovered evidence.
James learned that one juror, Kenneth Asuquo, failed to disclose that his stepfather and mother were city employees. His mother had been hired in 1989; his father, 1995 — both during James’ administration. James also discovered that Asuquo’s stepfather had contributed to his campaigns and attended fundraisers.
A voir dire questionnaire asked prospective jurors whether they or their immediate family personally knew James; had "any business or other dealings with" the city; had "ever been involved with a political campaign in opposition to or in support of" James; or had ever been a federal, state, county or municipal government officer or employee.
Asuquo, in his answers, revealed no personal connection with James, any business dealings with the city or involvement in a pro- or anti-James campaign. He did acknowledge Newark residency and that his parents, generally, worked for government. He also revealed that he once interviewed James as part of a group school project years earlier.
Asuquo, after testifying in affirmance of his impartiality, was accepted to the panel.
James contended that Asuquo had been dishonest and would have been motivated to convict to protect his parents’ job security under the Booker administration.
Martini said James failed to show that Asuquo gave affirmatively dishonest voir dire answers. Martini noted that there were no questions asking specifically about Newark city employment, and the question about "business or other dealings" with Newark would not necessarily encompass employment.
On Tuesday, Third Circuit Judges Thomas Hardiman and Ruggero Aldisert, joined by U.S. District Judge Leonard Stark of Delaware, sitting by designation, affirmed, finding that Asuquo had been forthright.
James couldn’t show, as required by precedent, that Asuquo failed to answer a material question honestly, and that a correct response would have provided a valid basis for challenging a juror for cause, Hardiman said. A juror’s answer that is "mistaken, though honest" does not meet the requirement, he added.
Hardiman agreed that the question about "business or other dealings" with the city "does not necessarily include employment." That interpretation is "especially reasonable because Question 33 specifically asked whether the juror or any family member had ‘ever been an officer or employee’ of a government unit," he said.
As for Asuquo’s stepfather’s donations and attendance of James fundraisers, Hardiman said they don’t prove he personally knew James, and Asuquo might have been unaware of those activities or might have interpreted them as not amounting to the kind of "political involvement" referred to in the jury questionnaire.
Asuquo’s honesty is "further evidenced by his candid responses to other voir dire questions," Hardiman added.
Even if Asuquo’s answers were dishonest, they would not have provided a basis for a challenge for cause, Hardiman said, calling James’ arguments about Asuquo’s parents’ job security speculative and noting that the campaign donations evidence a bias favoring James.
James was represented on appeal by Newark solo Alan Bowman, who did not return a call.
His trial counsel, Chatham solo Alan Zegas, says: "At a minimum, Sharpe James was entitled to a hearing," adding that Asuquo "was looking to get on the jury — that’s how it seems."
"There was a sharp division at the time of the trial between supporters of Sharpe James and supporters of Cory Booker. We were doing our best to keep off the jury anybody with any political affiliation in Newark. Had we known the accurate answers to the questions, we would’ve asked the judge to go further [in the inquiry], and I believe he would have."
James — now 76 and out of prison for nearly three years — still "disputes his guilt," Zegas says, adding, "He’s been looking to vindicate himself from the outset … and there’s good cause."
U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Matthew Reilly declines comment.