Cigarette kingpin Rodney Morrison to face retrial

Undated photo of Rodney Morrison. Undated photo of Rodney Morrison. Photo Credit: Handout

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A federal judge Wednesday ordered a retrial for Rodney Morrison, the multimillionaire convicted of racketeering on charges he ran a massive cigarette-bootlegging operation on the Poospatuck Indian reservation in Mastic, because a possible bribe offer to a juror had tainted deliberations.

U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley in Central Islip also ordered a retrial for Morrison on the charge of being a felon in possession of a gun, for which he was also convicted in 2008. In addition to overturning Morrison's two convictions, Hurley further ruled that he could not be retried on the charges he was acquitted of at that trial -- conspiracy to commit murder, arson, extortion and robbery -- because he would have faced double jeopardy.

The decision was a legal victory for Morrison. He had argued he was entitled to a new trial on the charges he had been convicted of because of jury tampering, but could not be retried on those he had been acquitted of.

Morrison's request for a new trial came after the government disclosed last December that investigators discovered that there was a possibility of an attempt to bribe jurors during deliberations.

Prosecutors, however, argued there was no evidence any possible bribe offer had tainted deliberations, but if it had, then Morrison should be retried on all charges.

Hurley already had sentenced Morrison to the maximum 10 years on the gun charges; Morrison was awaiting sentencing on the bootlegging charge, which carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Hurley held three hearings earlier this year, questioning three jurors and an alternate about what they knew about the supposed bribe attempt.

Hurley held the hearings because of "the nature, breadth and seeming egregiousness of the tampering information provided by the government."

But the jurors gave contradictory testimony about whether there was an actual bribe attempt and from whom it may have come, and also denied that any bribe offer had affected their deliberations

Still, Hurley ruled the fact one juror thought he received a bribe offer was enough to taint the deliberations.

The juror said he thought the bribe offer may have been made by one of Morrison's sons for up to $20,000.

But even if that occurred, Hurley ruled, there was no proof that Morrison himself was behind any bribe offer, and prosecutors did not contend that he was.

Hurley concluded that "there is no question that a bribe offer was extended by someone . . . " and caused the juror to be troubled during the deliberations.

It is clear, Hurley wrote, "that the government has not demonstrated that bribe offer . . . did not affect the freedom of action of one or more of the jurors."

The alleged offer was made in a bizarre fashion over a cellphone found next to a car in the courthouse parking lot that was adjacent to a car that was being used by a juror and an alternate juror to commute.

Morrison attorney Richard Levitt declined to comment. Robert Nardoza, spokesman for Eastern District federal prosecutors, said, "We are reviewing Judge Hurley's decision and considering options."

One legal scholar, David Moran, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, has said the case raised legal issues that had been previously unresolved by the Supreme Court involving questions of jury tampering and double jeopardy.

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