Give Me Back My Reputation!

Ex-Labor Secretary Donovan is acquitted after a nine-month trial

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A number of New York State legal experts said Merola and his assistant Bookin simply failed to substantiate their charges. Says Columbia University Law Professor Gerard Lynch: "The general feeling is that this is one of the dullest, longest and least persuasive presentations ever made." Joy Fennel, a juror who says she once leaned toward conviction, agrees: "I was frustrated the D.A. didn't do a better job." Several jurors also indicated sympathy with a defense contention that Merola, a Democrat, brought the charges just before the 1984 election in a politically motivated attempt to embarrass the Reagan Administration. Countered Merola: "In the Bronx, you need a smoking gun or a knife to convince a jury a crime has been committed."

The prosecution's efforts were further damaged, perhaps fatally, in April when Judge John Collins felt it necessary to clarify for Merola the legal theory on which the case would be presented. Merola wanted to broach two theories of what the jurors could consider to be larceny; Collins allowed them to weigh only one. Says a retired Manhattan judge who followed the trial: "It is pretty embarrassing for the prosecutor to have the judge straighten out for him the indictment and the legal theory behind it." The sensation of what was primarily a dozy trial came just after the jury began deliberating. One juror apparently suffered an attack of panic; she locked herself in a bathroom chanting, "The Lord is my shepherd." Judge Collins rejected appeals by several defendants to declare a mistrial. He seated an alternate juror, who concurred in the verdict of acquittal.

Donovan is expected to rejoin Schiavone, which is paying a $13 million legal bill. Ronald Schiavone, the firm's chairman, was named in Merola's original indictment, but after he suffered a heart attack last June, the prosecution agreed to try him at a later date. That trial is scheduled for July, but it is unlikely it will ever be held. For his part, Theodore Geiser, attorney for the Schiavone company, is reviving a suit for damages he filed two years ago against Merola, accusing the D.A. of publicly making prejudicial statements about the defendants beyond what was charged in the indictment.*

For Donovan and his family, however, this particular nightmare is over. In late 1984, two months after his indictment, Donovan drove to the public library near his home in Short Hills, N.J., to read the newspaper clips about his career. As he thumbed through the stories about his legal troubles, he grew increasingly angry. "That's what people will read forever," Donovan complained. It may be small comfort to him, but now that folder will contain a sheaf of clips headlined DONOVAN ACQUITTED.

FOOTNOTE: *Ronald Schiavone also is pursuing a libel suit, against TIME (Donovan is not a party) involving an article published in 1982. New Jersey Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin dismissed the suit last November. A Schiavone appeal of the dismissal is expected to come up for argument in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals this fall.

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