Did a grand jury foreman say too much?

July 9, 2009 5:00:56 PM PDT
Two Houston antique dealers sent to prison for stealing from their clients have been granted a new trial, even though they pleaded guilty. Their lawyers convinced a judge there was so much bias the first time around that it should be done all over again. Jerry and Wynonne Hart were sent to prison for 14 years. Revealing phone messages were used Thursday as evidence to show the grand jury in the case may have been biased.

The judge didn't say why he gave the former antique dealers a new trial. But he did. And there are many possibilities as to why. Chief among them was a grand juror who may've said a little too much.

The Harts came to court from jail Thursday. Before getting their new trial, they were serving 14 year prison sentences. This week's hearing wasn't so much about their alleged million-dollar theft as it was about grand jury foreman Robert Ryan.

On a taped phone call played in court and given to us by defense attorneys, Ryan talks to a private eye about his grand jury service, which is supposed to be secret.

"I was the foreman of the grand jury and it's my signature that indicted him," Ryan could be heard saying on the tape.

True, and not all that alarming. But a minute later on the tape, Ryan tells the private eye he was once a customer of the Harts.

"I bought stuff there. I sold stuff there, but one incident that particularly pisses me off, galls me, was probably in the middle to late 80s," said Ryan on the tape.

Ryan said he felt like he didn't get as much as should have from one of their auctions, and years later sat in judgment of them.

"I must admit I took some glee in signing that indictment," said Ryan.

"We just can't tolerate something like that.," said defense attorney Robert Scardino.

The Harts' lawyer seized on it as bias in the grand jury. And the judge who appointed Ryan says the public should expect more.

"People want to think the grand jury is fair and unbiased, " said Harris County District Judge Jim Wallis. "Juries determine probable cause to believe an offense was created and should never base that indictment on grudges or facts that would cause him to have a bias."

But Judge Wallace has appointed Ryan to at least three grand juries and you may remember Ryan from a grand jury last year arguing with DAs and defense lawyers about the indictment of Supreme Court Justice David Medina's wife.

On the stand in this case, Ryan said he was complaining about another dealer on the recording and on Thursday, he didn't want to talk about it with us. But the judge said Ryan's grand jury days are over.

"I'm disappointed he didn't have more sense to know better," said Judge Wallace.

There were other allegations of wrongdoing, including judges talking to each other outside court about what the appropriate sentence is. The Harris County DA's office didn't respond to our calls for comment. There is no date for a new trial.

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