A 45-year-old New Orleans man who was accused of taking cash to help sway fellow jurors in an Orleans Parish cocaine and gun case pleaded guilty to public bribery Thursday, accepting a suspended sentence in a deal with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office.
Julius “Big Man” Ford was set to go to trial Thursday, accused of accepting an offer of $1,000 for each juror he could convince to vote in favor of acquitting Casey Warren, who was facing charges of drug dealing, illegal gun possession and public intimidation. Warren’s older brother, Sean Patrick Warren, offered Ford the money.
Ford admitted to recognizing the elder Warren, as Ford sat in the jury box listening to evidence during Casey Warren’s trial in August 2013. The two men locked eyes, and after Sean Warren approached Ford outside the courthouse, Ford followed him to Algiers, he told a grand jury.
He said Sean Warren offered him $1,000 per vote to ensure at least a 9-3 hung jury on drug dealing, illegal gun possession and public intimidation counts against his brother.
“So he tells me, ‘I need three,’ ” Ford told the grand jury of the meeting inside Sean Warren’s gray Infiniti SUV.
“What’s three?” asked Ford, who is now an auto parts store manager.
“I need three for my brother to walk,” Warren responded. “Hung jury.”
The jury ultimately acquitted Casey Warren on two of the charges and deadlocked on the gun count.
Ford told the grand jury that he revealed the bribe offer to other jurors, including a New Orleans police detective who worked in the 4th District, where Casey Warren was said to be a prolific cocaine dealer.
He told the grand jury he feared for his life but that he didn’t take any money or push other jurors to change their votes.
“I said, ‘I’m too deep in this to fool with this. I’m not — I’m not gonna fool with it. I’m gonna let it go. Y’all vote,’ ” he said.
Prosecutors came to court Thursday armed with records showing that Ford and Sean Warren communicated by text message in the week after the verdicts were read.
Sean Warren also told a different story than Ford did while spelling out the bribery scheme in court. He said he met with Ford outside the Chocolate Bar on South Broad Street and they drove to Algiers.
Sean Warren said both brothers recognized Ford in the courtroom.
“Instantly, we knew that we knew each other from somewhere. I recognized him — a t which time we acknowledged each other with a heads up,” Sean Warren said.
He recounted driving in separate cars and meeting with Ford at a daiquiri shop.
“Mr. Ford told me … that he could for sure get two other votes to vote not guilty. We agreed upon $1,000 for each not guilty vote for a total of $3,000, but if he got an acquittal on all the charges, the agreement was $5,000,” Sean Warren said.
He said he gave Ford $1,000 in $20 bills initially, and then he and his brother agreed to pay more when the jury came back with the verdicts.
“I gave him $2,000 more — the balance of the $3,000 which we had agreed to for the not guilty votes, yes,” Sean Warren said.
His brother paid him back, he said.
Both brothers have pleaded guilty in the jury tampering scheme.
Casey Warren, 38, pleaded guilty last year to cocaine distribution, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, obstruction of justice, jury tampering, false swearing and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He agreed to a 13-year prison sentence.
Sean Warren, 41, pleaded guilty to jury tampering and obstruction of justice. He is slated to be sentenced next week.
Cannizzaro and Ford’s attorneys met Thursday morning in Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich’s chambers to hammer out the deal for Ford, in which prosecutors dropped a perjury charge.
Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli then agreed in court to the suspended sentence.
Zibilich endorsed a sentence of three years of probation. Ford will serve the first three months of it on home confinement, with a GPS device strapped to his ankle.
“The biggest duty we have is to make sure the jury system is not corrupt, that it works,” Zibilich said.
He acknowledged a “significant factual contention” as to whether Ford actually took the bribe, adding, “If it wasn’t the case, believe you me, you’d be going to the penitentiary.”
Ford declined to comment on his guilty plea. His attorney, Jay Daniels, said Ford “took the plea solely because he thought it was in his best interests. His family can’t afford to have him in jail.”
Daniels said Ford “acknowledges he received a bribe offer, but he never took the bribe” and revealed it to other jurors.
Ford faced a maximum five-year prison term on the public bribery count.
Cannizzaro said the sentence was Zibilich’s decision.
“I don’t argue with the judge on that one. That’s his call on that,” Cannizzaro said.
The bribery scheme came to light after prosecutors lost the case against Casey Warren and quizzed the jury.
By then, accusations had already been raised by three jurors who said Sean Warren had followed them toward their cars.
But the judge in the drug and gun case, Keva Landrum-Johnson, allowed the deliberations to finish, saying, “Nobody ever said someone talked to somebody. I didn’t hear any of that.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.