Bess Myer-son, flashing her rekindled Miss America smile, marched triumphantly from federal court where she was cleared of charges that she conspired to fix her lover's divorce settlement by giving the judge's daughter a city job.
Jurors who acquitted the 1945 Miss America Thursday after four days of deliberations said the prosecution weakened its case by choosing the judge's emotionally troubled daughter as the trial's key witness.As the jury forewoman announced the verdict in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Myerson, 64, broke into tears and hugged her attorney and then her boyfriend and codefendant, 43-year-old Carl "Andy" Capasso.
Then, regaining the composure she has showed throughout two months of testimony about sex, family strife and political intrigue, the regal Myerson held her head high and extended her hand to Capasso, who kissed it.
Emerging from the courtroom, a beaming Myerson told reporters: "I am grateful for the American judicial system. I thank the jury for exonerating me."
Myerson, Capasso - who is a multimillionaire sewer contractor serving a three-year sentence on an unrelated tax evasion conviction - and former state Supreme Court Justice Hortense Gabel were cleared of all charges in the convoluted case dubbed the "Bess Mess."
Prosecutors charged that Myerson, while city cultural affairs commissioner in Mayor Edward Koch's administration, hired Gabel's highly educated but hard-to-employ daughter, Sukhreet, for a $19,000-a-year job to influence Gabel's rulings in the divorce case. Justice Gabel slashed Capasso's alimony payments after her daughter was hired by Myerson.
But the case against the three was largely circumstantial and based on the testimony of Sukhreet Gabel, 39, who admitted during cross-examination that electro-shock treatments for depression had left her mind like "Swiss cheese."
Jurors said the fact that Sukhreet Gabel, known for her flamboyant outfits and bizarre fascination with the limelight, was the key prosecution witness raised doubts about the strength of the government's case.
"I could not understand why the prosecutors presented her as a witness if they had a solid case," said juror Daniel Handley, 41, an unemployed television actor from Manhattan.
He recalled one of the highlights of the trial, in which Sukhreet Gabel testified that the elegant Myerson showed up at her apartment in 1986 wearing an uncharacteristicly casual sweatsuit, dark glasses and a scarf and insisted they take a walk around the block. Sukhreet Gabel testified Myerson told her to "keep your big mouth shut" about the case because "you remember too much."
Gabel said after the walk, Myerson "vanished into the darkness from whence she came."
Handley said the phrase sounded stilted and phoney and "that struck a lot of jurors."
"Her testimony sounded like melodrama. Even the language she used sounded rehearsed," Handley said.
The jury forewoman said the government's purely circumstancial case was just not enough to secure convictions.
"I believe they threaded a lot of facts together and that thread was very weak," said jury forewoman Linda Berardi, 29, of Tuckahoe, who trains staff workers who aid retarded adults.
Handley agreed that some jurors "very definitely felt something was going on but they could not get ahold of anything."
The verdict was a setback for U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, who successfully prosecuted a series of former city officials in scandals that have rocked the Koch administration. He also has won celebrated convictions against major mobsters and Wall Street inside traders.
"I have never argued with a jury's verdict and will not do so here," Giuliani said. "We were stuck with the witnesses that existed in that situation."
Myerson, Capasso and Gabel were found innocent of conspiracy, mail fraud and the use of interstate facilities to carry out bribery, and Myerson was also acquitted of obstruction of justice. Myerson faced up to 30 years in prison if convicted, and Capasso and Gabel could have received up to 25 years.
Koch, whose frequent appearances with Myerson during his first campaign for mayor led to speculation they would marry, said in a statement, "I'm glad for her as a personal friend."
Sukhreet Gabel, who taped her mother's telephone calls for the prosecution, said, "I think justice was done. I did what I was asked to do. There was nothing wrong with what my mother told me to do, which was tell the truth."