Supporters of City Council member Kenyatta Johnson react to her mistrial
Reginald Corleone cheered as he walked out of the Philadelphia federal courthouse on Tuesday afternoon.
The 52-year-old was bursting with audible relief just minutes after a federal judge declared a mistrial in the corruption case against his childhood friend, city council member Kenyatta Johnson.
While federal prosecutors have already promised to retry the case, the jury’s deadlock amounted to a “not guilty” verdict in the minds of friends and family who accompanied Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, out. from the courtroom.
“He was innocent,” Corleone said. “We are happy for him. He can go back to his family and start moving forward again.
READ MORE: Feds promise to retry Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, on corruption charges after hung jury quashes trial
Corleone was one of dozens of supporters who filled the courtroom for the duration of the 20-day trial, listening to prosecutors pour out a deluge of financial records and emails in an attempt to convince the jury that Johnson had accepted a bribe from former Universal Companies executives in the form of a “low show” political consulting contract for his wife.
Jury deliberation ended in an anticlimactic fashion – no verdict, no prayer groups, no singing of hymns. After the mistrial, Johnson offered a few words before getting into a car with his wife, promising to continue fighting for the residents he represents. Meanwhile, the two lead prosecutors in the case disappeared down Market Street without a word.
A central part of the prosecution’s case was to establish that the couple were financially prone to corruption – and to that end they put the microscope on the family’s wallet. Prosecutors said Johnson and his wife were anticipating the birth of their first child and dealing with mounting credit card debt and other expenses related to both of their homes when Chavous took the contract with Universal.
Meanwhile, Universal needed Johnson’s help to rezone the Royal Theater for redevelopment and support to retain the 13th and Bainbridge street lots amid their own financial troubles.
But without compelling evidence, the prosecution and defense focused on the $66,750 salary that Universal paid Chavous over 16 months. Considering the hours she billed, the prosecution argued the sum amounted to an hourly rate of more than $1,660 an hour – the cost of allegedly helping the nonprofit organization financially. turbulent. The defense, however, argued that the nonprofit was paying for Chavous’ fundraising expertise and contacts in the charter school world.
“The problem in this case was that there was no evidence,” Patrick J. Egan, the couple’s defense attorney, said outside the courthouse on Tuesday. “Luckily some of the jurors obviously saw it that way too.”
For Reverend Jeanette Davis, a Northeast Philadelphia pastor and gun violence prevention advocate who worked closely with Johnson, the victory was aided by church support that galvanized Johnson and Chavous.
“It’s biblical,” Davis said. She quoted a passage from the Bible: “The effectual and fervent prayer of a righteous man or woman is very useful.
In other words: prayer works, and it was divine intervention. Johnson and Chavous attended a prayer vigil with supporters in South Philadelphia in the days leading up to the trial, and throughout weeks of testimony, local clergy filled the courtroom alongside of friends, political insiders and occasional former elected officials.
Still, Davis acknowledged that after 25 hours of jury deliberation starting last week, no one knew which way the cards would fall until a mistrial was declared.
“Things could have turned out differently,” Davis said.
Prosecutors have already vowed to try Johnson and his wife again, much to the chagrin of supporters like Claudia Smith Sherrod, who has known Johnson and Chavous for decades and attended just days of the trial.
“It’s horrible what they had to go through, unfair that our tax money was wasted,” Sharrod said, calling the charges and any attempt to subject the couple to another trial as “bogus”.
Some supporters also expressed shock at the depth with which the lawsuit exposed the couple’s personal lives, exposing their finances through a series of credit card statements, bank statements and overdraft charges.
“What I realized when I was sitting there was how invasive this type of process is,” said Albert Littlepage, a community activist and Johnson ally in South Philadelphia, who has attended the trial for several days. “I was thinking, ‘wow, they’re just stripping these people.'”
Littlepage added that the trial caused him to “lose a bit of faith in the government”, after seeing what he saw as a big swing and a failure.
In recent years, prosecutors in the Eastern U.S. District of Pennsylvania have boasted victories in high-profile cases against elected officials. Johnson’s mistrial marks the first adverse outcome for federal prosecutors since the acquittal of former state senator Larry Farnese in 2017, even as the feds secured major convictions against the former member of the City Councilman Bobby Henon, District Attorney Seth Williams and U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah.
But now, he said, Johnson’s circle of supporters feel he can move on.
“The community is happy,” said Littlepage. “And we hope the government will see its mistake.”