MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The death of a defendant in Alabama's gambling corruption case caused more than just a one-week delay in the retrial — it led Ray Crosby's friends to question if he died from the stress of what they called an overreaching federal prosecution.
But don't expect to hear any of that brought up in court when jury selection starts Monday.
"There is no way that gets into the trial," said John Carroll, a former federal magistrate judge who's now dean of Cumberland Law School at Samford University.
Laura Sweeney, spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, said prosecutors are not commenting while the case is pending.
Crosby, casino owner Milton McGregor, and five others were scheduled for a retrial Jan. 30 after their first trial on government corruption charges ended in a hung jury in August. The afternoon before the trial, Crosby was found dead in his bed at his Montgomery home. An autopsy report listed Crosby's death as natural from hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson delayed the start of jury selection until Monday because of Crosby's death. The trial will go forward for McGregor, state Sen. Harri Anne Smith, former Sens. Larry Means and Jim Preuitt, casino lobbyist Tom Coker, and casino spokesman Jay Walker. They are accused of using millions in campaign contributions to buy and sell votes for legislation designed to keep McGregor's now-closed VictoryLand casino operating near Montgomery.
Crosby spent his career as a state employee writing bills for legislators. Prosecutors accused him of taking a bribe of $3,000 a month from McGregor for two years to advise him about gambling legislation being developed by legislators.
After his death, Crosby's friends talked about how his indictment caused him to retire from his $150,000-a-year state job, go through a divorce, run up big legal bills, put his house up for sale to raise money and eventually file for bankruptcy four days before his death. He was so broke by the end that he couldn't pay an attorney for the retrial, and a federal judge had to appoint one to represent him at government expense.
Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery, who was acquitted of all charges in the first trial, said Crosby was under enormous stress. "He truly died with a broken heart. It did him in," Ross said.
Former state Sen. Danny Corbett, who found Crosby's body, said the prosecution broke him financially and emotionally.
"I hope the prosecutors can sleep well at night knowing they ran this man into the ground," Corbett said.
That criticism parallels public comments by McGregor's attorneys since the start of the case. They have repeatedly said that federal prosecutors wanted to bring down the politically influential casino owner — and that they were willing to go after his friends and criminalize normal campaign contributions.
"Their goal is to get McGregor on one count and everyone else is gravy," defense attorney Joe Espy said a few days before Crosby's death.
Carroll said the comments about Crosby's death fit in with the defense's theme from the beginning that the federal government has overreached in the case and gone after conduct that had not been considered illegal before. But he and other former judges said the trial judge won't let arguments about political and legal motivations into court.
Ralph Cook, a former trial judge and Alabama Supreme Court justice, expects Thompson to limit references to Crosby's death because he is no longer a defendant in the trial. Some potential jurors also may not have seen his death reported in the media.
"There are some folks who, believe it or not, will not know," the former justice said.
Cook said any evidence from the first trial that pertained only to Crosby will be excluded from the retrial. Evidence that is relevant to both Crosby and other defendants could be presented, though attorneys will likely argue over whether it should be allowed.
Of the 14 counts that McGregor faces, one count accuses him of paying bribes to Crosby. Crosby faced one count of bribery accusing him of taking payments from McGregor, but the judge dismissed it after the defendant's death.
Terry Butts, a former trial court judge and retired Alabama Supreme Court justice, said prosecutors may ask to dismiss the charge against McGregor that involves Crosby.
Dismissing it "would clear up the trial and not muddy the waters" with discussions of a dead defendant, while still leaving a dozen charges against McGregor, he said.
During the first trial, prosecutors made no public comments, but some defense lawyers made statements daily to the media about how weak they considered the governments' witnesses. A few days before Crosby's death, prosecutors asked the judge to restrict defense lawyers' public comments. No ruling has been made public, but defense attorneys have become cautious about their comments.
Carroll said defense attorneys make public statements during a trial in hopes of influencing public opinion. But he doesn't think they matter to jurors, who are told by the trial judge not to read or listen to news reports about the trial.
"My experience with jurors is that they really do not read the paper or listen to TV programs," he said.