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Jury brings no closure to mail trial

After living through months of accusation, a day of trial and nine hours of jury deliberation, former letter carrier William Santiago thought he might learn Thursday whether taking seven pieces of junk mail made him a criminal.

He got no answer.

Santiago's federal jury was dismissed after its deliberations over two days failed to lead to a unanimous verdict. Jurors voted 10-2 and 9-3 in favor of acquitting Santiago on the three counts of embezzlement, jurors said in interviews. Some had concerns that went beyond the narrow legal question they were asked to decide.

"It was something that never should have gone this far," said Jerry Johnson, a 53-year-old ceramic tile worker from Seminole who voted for acquittal. "It should have been an internal matter at the post office."

Santiago testified during the trial that he took catalogs and a magazine that were headed for the garbage bin at the Pinellas Park post office because they had bad addresses or their intended recipients were dead.

But a postal inspector said the Postal Service's zero-tolerance policy against mail theft makes no distinction between good addresses and bad or first-class and fourth-class mail.

Despite the jury deadlock, the judge did not declare a mistrial. A renewed defense motion to throw out the charges must be addressed first _ leaving Santiago, a 52-year-old Vietnam veteran with no criminal record, in legal limbo.

Attorneys for the prosecution and the defense declined to comment afterward. The U.S. Attorney's Office also declined to say whether it might take the case to trial again, or how much this prosecution cost.

After the non-verdict, Santiago walked away from the federal courthouse by himself. As he bought a Lotto ticket at a downtown Tampa newsstand, he declined to comment on the day's events, citing the advice of his attorney. Then he reconsidered.

"I want to thank the jurors for their time," he said. "I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart."

The jurors said they gave all the evidence a hard look. Individual opinions did not change as the hours wore on. Three times the jurors sent notes saying they couldn't reach a unanimous verdict. Twice they were told to keep trying.

"The government did not prove to me that Mr. Santiago actually believed what he was doing was against the law," said Philip Fronce, a 47-year-old draftsman from Palm Harbor. "There was a lack of evidence of his intent."

Aside from their frustration at trying to resolve the tricky legal issue of intent, France said there was a general, if not universal, feeling among jury members that the case was "a waste of time."

Juror Johnson said the jurors who thought Santiago guilty said that Santiago's admissions on the witness stand were confessions of a crime. As a 27-year employee of the Postal Service, he knew better.

On Thursday morning, jurors sent the judge a note, asking for a better definition of the phrase "bad purpose" in federal law. U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday told jurors to rely on the everyday meanings of the words.

The resolution of the case was delayed Thursday because Merryday had not presided over the trial testimony. That task had been handled by Senior U.S. District Judge H. Dale Cook, who is visiting from Oklahoma to help whittle down the Tampa Division's caseload.

Cook had been scheduled to leave town Thursday morning. Merryday stepped in for what was thought to be the routine task of accepting the verdict.

But when no verdict came, Santiago's assistant public defender renewed a motion for acquittal.

Merryday allowed the public defender and the prosecutor to argue the points of such a decision. But he declined to rule Thursday and held out the possibility that Cook would make the decision.

Attorneys said there is no easy way to figure the cost of Santiago's prosecution. The trial and its preparation involved two prosecutors, a public defender, two investigators, two federal judges, court personnel and a dozen jurors.

Annual salaries of some public defenders range from $75,000 to $80,000. Salaries of federal prosecutors can be as low as $35,000 or as high as $107,000, depending on experience and duties. Jury selection, testimony and deliberations took four days. The pretrial investigation took more time.