“Joan of Arkansas” defeats Kenneth Starr

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

Topics:

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.



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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>