“Joan of Arkansas” defeats Kenneth Starr

Susan McDougal acquitted of obstruction of justice; mistrial declared on contempt charges.

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An ecstatic Susan McDougal won a major battle against independent counsel Kenneth Starr Monday when a jury of 12 Arkansans found her not guilty of obstruction of justice for refusing to testify before the independent counsel’s grand jury in 1996 and 1998.

Judge George Howard Jr. declared a mistrial on two criminal contempt of court charges after the jury of six men and six women were “hopelessly deadlocked” on the counts. Nine jurors said continued deliberations would be a waste of time. Outside the courthouse, jurors said that seven had supported a not guilty verdict.

A radiant McDougal, dressed in what she called her lucky white pant suit, shouted with joy and hugged her fianc?, Pat Harris, and attorney Mark Geragos when Howard announced the verdict. Jim Henley, McDougal’s brother, smiled at his sister while other family members began crying.

“I had a fair trial and my day in court and I thank you for that,” said McDougal in court after the jury exited.

McDougal, who has had a cloud of indictments over her since 1993, already served 18 months in prison for civil contempt. She served two months of a two-year term on four felony convictions in her 1996 trial before Howard released her from prison because of a back problem.

Jurors began deliberations last Thursday. On Friday, Howard froze deliberations when juror Michael Nance brought a law book. The book once belonged to a former Arkansas state supreme court justice, John Purtle, who has publicly criticized past Whitewater investigations by Kenneth Starr. Nance said he acquired the book when he bought a house Purtle once owned, and found it there. At the end of the day, Howard opted to keep the juror and resume deliberations Monday morning.

The verdict came unexpectedly. Reporters were waiting outside the courthouse when word came at 11 a.m. that the jury had a question, or a possible verdict. Geragos was working out at a local gym when he was paged and told to return to the courthouse in 40 minutes.

“This verdict clearly shows that Ken Starr was not seeking the truth,” Geragos said on the steps of the federal courthouse. “It’s a stake in the heart of Ken Starr and sends a clear signal to pack up and get out of here.”

Indeed, the prosecution seemed rattled by the verdict. Prosecutor Mark Barrett asked Howard the proper procedure in order to question each juror. Howard informed Barrett that he must file a formal motion in order to question individual jurors about the case, and Barrett says he intends to file such a motion this week.

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He also said he had consulted with Starr and that a retrial is “definitely an option that we’ll be looking at” within the next two weeks. Barrett has 10 weeks to file new charges against McDougal and place her on trial again.

McDougal, smiling glowingly in front of cameras and reporters, said she felt like acquittal on the obstruction of justice charge was the big victory she sought. “I didn’t believe they wanted the truth,” she told listeners.

That statement has been McDougal’s mantra from the start of Starr’s investigation into President Clinton’s and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s role in the failed Whitewater real estate development scheme. The Clintons invested in the project with McDougal and her late ex-husband James McDougal.

“The great thing for me was not the verdict, it was more that I got my day in court, and I got to tell everything that I had been wanting to tell for years, and we got to put on evidence of the lives that Kenneth Starr has ruined,” said McDougal. After talking with reporters, McDougal, Geragos and family members dashed off to the Capital Hotel for a celebration breakfast with champagne.

Throughout McDougal’s trial, the courtroom was filled with McDougal groupies who came from far and near — Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, California — to back the woman they refer to as “Joan of Arkansas,” a saint who defied the government. Not surprisingly, they look at today’s verdict as a major defeat for Starr.

“I think Ken Starr lost today, big time,” said Lisa Ritterbush of Mufreesboro, Ark., who has been in the courtroom nearly daily to support a woman she had never met until this trial started. “The verdict says to Starr, ‘We don’t approve of the way you treat people and we take care of our own.’ I think Susan has been abused enough, and everyone is tired of it. “

For nearly five weeks, a stream of defense and prosecution witnesses attempted to map out the events that led to the office of independent counsel’s charging McDougal with obstruction of justice and contempt of court. Defense attorney Geragos tried to put Starr on trial with McDougal. He attributed his client’s refusal to testify before Starr’s grand jury to her fear of being prosecuted for perjury if Starr didn’t like her testimony. In closing arguments, Geragos said, “This is something you expect to find in the Third Reich.”

The prosecution took a blow when Julie Hiatt Steele appeared as a witness for the defense. Starr indicted Steele for allegedly lying to grand jurors when, after initially corroborating it, she denied former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey’s claim that she had told Steele that Clinton had made an unwelcome sexual advance toward her in 1993. Steele testified that in fact she was indicted because she refused to give false testimony against Clinton — the very thing McDougal claimed to fear. She told the jury she owed $500,000 in legal bills and is about to lose the house where she has lived for 20 years.

The prosecution tried to dismiss McDougal’s fear of Starr and focus on the fact that McDougal was keeping pertinent information regarding Clinton — information that actually helped exonerate Clinton.

Over the trial’s course, the prosecution called 10 witnesses and three rebuttal witnesses. It also showed year-old videotaped testimony from Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a three-and-a-half hour unedited video of Diane Sawyer’s interview with McDougal in 1996. In off-camera statements, McDougal said that she wanted the independent counsel dead. When Sawyer asked if McDougal was serious, she answered, “Yes.”

The defense called seven witnesses, going for the heart instead of the head. Geragos subpoenaed Claudia Riley, a former Arkansas first lady and Susan and Jim McDougal’s friend, and Rabbi Aaron Kriegel, a chaplain at Metro Detention Center, the prison where McDougal spent jail time. Riley testified that she was frightened for McDougal and urged her to help Starr, but that McDougal refused as a matter of conscience. Riley told jurors that McDougal was “the epitome of all that’s good and noble” and “the strongest young woman in the world.” Kriegel painted a portrait of a changed woman, who helped fellow inmates and turned the jail dynamics from dismal to upbeat.

Throughout the trial, McDougal played the role of a gracious, charming Southern belle, who married a man 15 years her senior and tried to make it work. And she played that role to the hilt after the verdict Monday, inviting everyone in the courtroom to celebrate her victory over Starr at the Capitol Hotel.

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

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