NEWARK — The federal judge overseeing Sen. Robert Menendez’s corruption case clashed with the Democrat’s lead attorney over jury instructions on Tuesday morning.
“This is a serious matter. This is not reality TV. This is real life,” Judge William Walls told jurors. He then offered the jurors an instruction: “When you sit around that table and you are deliberating, I want you to ask each other one thing: ‘Why?’"
Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell said Walls’ direction to the jurors to ask “why” was not included in the model instructions he had given attorneys.
“I object to the fact that you varied from what you gave us ahead of time,” Lowell said. “I don’t know what the ‘why’ was.’”
Jurors deliberated last week on the 18 corruption counts against Menendez and co-defendant Salomon Melgen. But Walls dismissed one of the jurors last Friday so she could go on long-planned vacation, and after replacing her with an alternate told jurors to begin deliberations from scratch on Monday.
Jurors on Monday afternoon told Walls they were deadlocked and asked him how to proceed. He sent them home an hour early and told them to get some rest, come back Tuesday and keep deliberating.
Responding to Lowell’s criticism Tuesday, Walls said: “Why is a very common and innocuous but a very effective question. Why? … Just like ‘why are you standing there grimacing?’”
“I’m not grimacing,” Lowell said.
Walls also told jurors that “this is not the first time jurors have told a judge they are unable to reach an agreement, and later on agreements are reached" — a comment Lowell also objected to.
Prosecutors alleged that Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist, plied Menendez with gifts, including private jet flights, luxury hotel stays and around $750,000 in campaign contributions. In exchange, Menendez allegedly went to bat for Melgen’s business interests at the highest levels of the federal government, seeking officials’ help in his $8.9 million Medicare dispute, attempting to get American officials to pressure the Dominican Republic to honor a lucrative port security contract Melgen owned and securing visas for three of Melgen’s former girlfriends.
The defense does not dispute that Menendez did favors for Melgen, but argues they were borne out of a 20-year friendship and that Melgen’s disputes with the federal government raised legitimate policy issues.