FAYETTEVILLE — In one last-ditch effort to bring legal success to their client, former gubernatorial candidate Charlotte Pritt’s lawyers on Wednesday had their motion for a new trial denied by the judge who presided over the long-awaited jury trial in March.

Hugh Roberts had filed a motion in mid-April seeking a new trial based on what he deemed was a gross miscarriage of justice — a jury verdict that decided in favor of the defendants in Pritt’s 9-year-old libel lawsuit against three Republican organizations regarding ads they aired against her in her failed 1996 bid for governor.

Fayette County Circuit Judge Paul Blake said he requested the presence of all parties at Wednesday’s hearing for the purpose of hearing their arguments in person.

“Indulge me in a little rhetoric,” Roberts said. “We were confronted by a formidable armada to deliver a precious cargo of truth. The dock workers sank the ship. We ask you (Blake), the dock master, to rescue this precious cargo of truth.”

The veteran attorney complained that a comment made by one of the defense attorneys, Bobby Burchfield, prejudiced the jury’s decision by reminding them that, if they found for the defendants, the trial would be considerably shortened due to bifurcation. Burchfield was not present Wednesday.

Bifurcation is a separation of the liabilities and damages phases of a trial. By telling the jurors they could go home earlier if they found for his clients, thus bypassing a damages phase, Burchfield affected the verdict, Roberts claimed. He added he was never an enthusiastic supporter of bifurcation from the start.

“The plaintiff is 50 percent less likely to prevail in such cases,” Roberts blasted, citing a study on the subject.

“My acquiescence was very reluctant (to bifurcation). It proved to be an unlevel playing field, and I don’t think a fair result has been reached here. I make a fervent plea for a new trial. Burchfield told the jury of his affection for them. I wish he had such an affection for the truth.”

Blake was quick to remind Roberts that both legal teams had agreed to the concept of bifurcation before the trial began.

Jason Levine, in a rebuttal for the defense, attacked Roberts for the tardiness of his gripes and suggested the plaintiff’s push for a new trial was simply based on the fact that she lost the trial.

“This issue of bifurcation is a red herring,” Levine countered.

“The court raised the issue nine days before the trial started. Roberts lost the case, and it’s a natural human instinct to cast blame at something in defeat. It boggles the mind that he has thought about this for nine years without thinking about how bifurcation would work out. It’s inconceivable.”

Levine argued that, had jurors really been in such a rush to conclude the trial, they would not have deliberated on a Friday afternoon and adjourned without a decision until the following Monday. He added Burchfield’s remark mirrored something Blake himself had instructed the jury about previously.

“She (Pritt) is saying that the jury wasted more than a week of its time,” he opined.

“There is no miscarriage of justice here. Lawsuits like this never go to trial because they’re usually dismissed by summary judgment. Pritt has done better in this kind of case than most who have come before her. This is just a disappointed former candidate for governor who wants to prolong the judicial process.”

Just before Blake rendered his decision, Roberts apologized to his client for nine years of effort going unrewarded.

“I didn’t ask for this case. I inherited it,” Blake concluded as he expressed sympathy for Pritt’s plight.

“I’ve been where she is. I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of falsehoods and mischaracterizations. The burden of proof, clear and convincing evidence, is tough. I have to decide based on what the law says. I can’t substitute my judgment for a jury’s judgment. This is a court of law, not a court of social justice.”

— E-mail: mhill@register-herald.com



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