SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - A jury stunned a courtroom Friday by acquitting former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona of a sweeping corruption conspiracy and all but one related count of witness tampering.
Carona, 53, began shaking as the verdicts were being read in U.S. District Court, then put his head down on the counsel table and sobbed loudly.
In the gallery, his wife, Deborah, and friends gasped. "Oh my God!" she blurted repeatedly.
The announcement that a verdict had been reach came shortly after one juror sent out a note asking to talk to the judge about jury instructions. It was the latest of a half-dozen notes sent after the panel got the case last week.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford sent back a note saying he could not talk with a single juror.
The jury found Carona not guilty of one count of conspiracy, three counts of mail fraud and one count of witness tampering. He was convicted of a second count of witness tampering. The penalty for that count was not immediately clear.
The judge said Carona could be released on bond, with restrictions against travel.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Julian said he was glad to have the single conviction.
"I'm grateful he was convicted on witness tampering, absolutely," Julian said.
The case went to the jury on Jan. 8 after a 10-week trial peppered with the suggestion of scandal: infidelity and betrayal, clandestine money drops, government informants and hours of profanity-laced secret recordings.
Carona, once dubbed "America's sheriff" by CNN's Larry King for helping put away a child murderer, was indicted in October 2007 after a long federal probe. He retired as the head of the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department three months later.
The government charged that as early as 1998, the charismatic, three-term lawman solicited the help of multimillionaire businessman Don Haidl to launder at least $30,000 in campaign contributions.
Once elected, Carona rewarded Haidl with the post of assistant sheriff, prosecutors said. Haidl received a car, a gun, a badge, a "get-out-of-jail-free" card, and control over a new reserve deputy program that allowed him to hand out law enforcement badges to his friends, relatives and associates, the government said.
Haidl continued to bribe Carona once in office by paying him $1,000 a month, paying for luxurious trips and tailored suits, lending Carona his yacht and private jet and bailing out Carona's mistress and her foundering law firm with a questionable bridge loan, the government said.
The prosecution contended that Haidl's gifts to Carona exceeded $430,000 over several years.
Haidl eventually became a government informant, along with another former assistant sheriff and Carona's one-time campaign manager, George Jaramillo. Both men were named as unindicted co-conspirators in the grand jury indictment against Carona and reached plea deals with federal prosecutors early on.
Haidl wore a wire to three meetings with Carona in summer 2007, producing hours of profanity-laced audio tapes that were repeatedly
played for the jury at trial. Haidl himself spent 10 days on the witness stand, one of a parade of nearly five dozen witnesses to testify in the case. Jaramillo did not testify.
Carona's defense team, which represented him for free, argued that prosecutors built their case on the testimony Haidl and Jaramillo, who were corrupt and pinning the blame on Carona to save themselves.
In closing arguments, the defense also questioned why the government never called a number of witnesses - including Jaramillo.
Carona's former mistress, Debra Hoffman, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud. His wife, Deborah, is charged with a single count of conspiracy.
The women will be tried together in a separate trial.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)