NEW ORLEANS -- A federal jury convicted stunned U.S. District Judge Robert Collins of bribery Saturday, finding the Deep South's first black federal jurist guilty of taking money in exchange for giving a light sentence to a drug smuggler.
The jury of nine whites and three blacks deliberated more than seven hours Friday and two hours Saturday before returning its verdict. The panel also convicted Collins of conspiracy to commit bribery and obstruction of justice.
Collins and Orleans Parish Levee Board member John Ross were accused of sharing a $100,000 bribe from drug smuggler Gary Young in what the defense contended was a legitimate real estate transaction.
The judge stood facing the bench after the verdict was read, a trace of a smile on his face. His lawyer, Julian Murray, said the judge was stunned by the verdict and would not have any comment.
'He can't handle it ... he cannot believe what has happened.'
Murray, who planned to appeal the verdict, said Collins will hear no more cases but will draw his $120,000 annual salary.
The ultimate responsibility for removing Collins from the bench rests with the Congress.
In closing remarks Thursday, prosecutor Jim Cole urged the jurors to tell Collins and Ross by their verdicts 'the lies are over.'
'Robert Collins, John Ross, both lied,' Cole said. 'It's about time somebody tell them the lies are over. It's your job to do that. Don't let them lie to you.
'Don't let Judge Collins bring drug money into your court ... and infect the system,' he said.
Defense attorneys said what looked like a bribery to government agents simply was a real estate deal between old friends.
Collins sentenced Young to 42 months in prison on Aug. 9, 1990, following a plea of guilty to smuggling 2,500 pounds of marijuana, despite a federal probation officer's recommendation he get eight years. Young previously had served a 40-month sentence for smuggling cocaine.
The following day, FBI agents recovered most of the bribe money in Collins' chambers at the courthouse and Ross' office.
Cole said Collins and Ross used the real estate story as an alibi after they were caught. He said there was no documentation to support the real estate transaction claim.
Cole said Collins and Ross used real estate terms in wiretapped conversations in discussing Young's case to conceal the bribe. He noted both Collins and Ross denied having any financial dealings with each other at the time of their arrest.
Collins could have put $17,500 in marked money found in his office in his bank across the street from the courthouse, Cole said. Instead he kept the cash locked in his chambers because it was bribery money, the prosecutor said.
Murray cited Collins' history as a civil rights pioneer and his appointment in 1978 as the first black federal judge in the Deep South. He said Collins had a legitimate real estate deal with Ross.
'The only crime Judge Collins committed was to be a friend with a piece of property for sale,' Murray said.
'It would have been interesting to see if they would have gotten to the act of sale,' he said. 'We'll never know, because the government chose to move in when it did.'
Murray explained the initial denial of business dealings by Collins and Ross, saying they were frightened by federal agents who questioned them.