Inside the Jury Box

The people who judged Symington look back with certainty, compassion

Cotey: "I didn't utilize. So I'd appreciate a thank you. I just did it for me, so that's over with."

While it remains unclear why Cotey believed Symington to be innocent, she's convinced the jury modified its verdict after she was dismissed to justify how long it took to complete deliberations. The jury was instructed to begin deliberations over on August 19 when an alternate was assigned to replace Cotey. It returned its verdicts on September 3.

Cotey says when she was on the panel, the other jurors wanted to find Symington guilty on all counts, but changed their minds once she was removed. The jury returned seven guilty verdicts, three not guilty and was deadlocked on 11 counts.

"They put up a good show after I got off," Cotey says.

William Carlson: The overwhelming evidence
As the trial of J. Fife Symington III dragged on, photographs of witnesses were posted inside the jury room. After 12 weeks of testimony, pictures of 40 witnesses were displayed.

But once the case went to the jury on the afternoon of August 8, the mug shots were soon replaced by posters prepared by jurors that displayed details of Symington's multitude of financial statements.

Grouped by years, the posters were constant reminders of the scores of contradictions in personal financial statements Symington submitted to lenders.

"Before we were done, the walls were covered," says presiding juror William Carlson.

The financial statements allowed Symington to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of loans for an array of real estate partnerships he controlled.

Coincidentally, Symington's financial statements for 1990 hung near the jury-room door; as they came and went, jurors were repeatedly exposed to the most glaring example of Symington's duplicity.

The key pieces of evidence in a trial that featured more than 1,300 exhibits were two December 31, 1990, financial statements--one that claimed a net worth of $5.4 million and the other that stated a net worth of negative $4.1 million.

Evidence showed Symington submitted the two conflicting financial statements to different lenders on the same day, May 14, 1991.

"That was something that was real heavy," says Carlson, a 48-year-old engineer.

It was the coup de grace to what Carlson says was a masterfully presented case by federal prosecutors. The glaring $9 million difference finally convinced several reluctant jurors to conclude that Symington knew he was deliberately submitting false information to lenders.

Before agreeing that Symington had committed a crime in submitting those statements, the jury had spent countless hours debating the significance of other discrepancies on Symington's financial statements without coming to a unanimous conclusion.

Prosecutors spent much of the trial attempting to show jurors that Symington's grossly inflated financial statements could not have been simply the result of "errors and omissions" as claimed by the defense. Instead, prosecutors argued, they constituted a systematic effort to overstate his net worth to convince lenders to advance loans. To do this, prosecutors painstakingly pointed out each and every discrepancy on the statements.

Defense attorneys responded by presenting arguments aimed at keeping deliberations focused on minutia rather than looking at the big picture. Their strategy almost worked.

Carlson and other jurors say the jury was divided over such matters as whether loans were bona fide, the proper way to report ownership of trust funds and how to value property.

Most jurors believed funds Symington borrowed from his wife, mother and friends were bona fide loans and he should have revealed them on his financial statements. But several jurors stated that Symington's friends and relatives indicated to him they didn't care if the money was repaid, so it wasn't necessary to report the debts.

Another contentious issue was whether Symington misled lenders by listing stocks held in trust as "readily marketable securities." Once again, most jurors believed it was outrageous for Symington to claim he owned the stocks and could readily convert them to cash when the stocks were actually held in an irrevocable spendthrift trust to which Symington had no direct access and could not pledge as collateral.

But a few jurors insisted that the stocks were basically his because he was the beneficiary and received annual payments from the trust funds' earnings, so there was nothing wrong with reporting the stocks as an asset.

Jurors also clashed over whether Symington misled lenders when he derived the value of his real estate assets not from appraisals or his ownership share of a project, but on what he hoped to get out of the project at some unspecified future date. Again, most jurors believed this was a ridiculous way to value real estate; others said a person is entitled to set whatever value he or she pleases on his or her property.

The jury finally began to reach some common ground on key components of Symington's financial statements when it began to closely examine how Symington reported loans.

Carlson says he noticed on financial statements dating as far back as 1983 that Symington wasn't accurately reporting the value of loans, generally understating the actual amount owed.

"I was seeing a pattern that this wasn't, 'Oops, this is a mistake,'" he says. "The financial statements were not representing known loan amounts properly."

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