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Sharp cries of relief escaped into a packed federal courtroom Friday from supporters of Lucas County Sheriff James Telb, who was found not guilty of criminal charges that he covered up a 2004 death of one of his jail inmates and lied to federal officials about the incident four years later.
The 72-year-old sheriff, along with Internal Affairs Capt. Robert McBroom, 64, showed signs of relief as they were each acquitted by a federal jury on the felony charges. Fellow defendants and former sheriff's office employees John Gray, 72, and Jay Schmeltz, 54, were each convicted of some, but not all, the charges they faced.
The four men were accused of crimes associated with the 2004 death of inmate Carlton Benton and allegations that top officials plotted to conceal the crime.
Sheriff Telb declined to comment on the verdicts as he left the courthouse surrounded by family, friends, and fellow officers. Captain McBroom said he was thankful that the jury was able to "see through what the government was trying to do to us" but declined to comment further.
The sheriff referred questions to his attorney, Richard Kerger, who said he was "absolutely delighted" at the acquittal, adding that the sheriff was "very happy."
"I was never in doubt about the outcome," Mr. Kerger said. "The sheriff is an honest man and that's the way he came across to the jurors."
Retired Sgt. John Gray was convicted on one count of violating civil rights for leaving the inmate in a cell without seeking medical attention and of two counts of writing false reports of the incident. He was acquitted of one count each of lying to the FBI and applying a sleeper hold that rendered a shackled Mr. Benton unconscious.
Schmeltz, a retired deputy, became emotional as the verdicts were read. He shed tears and covered his eyes when hearing that he was acquitted of violating civil rights for pushing the shackled Mr. Benton while escorting him through the jail's booking area. The jury also found him not guilty of one count of writing a false report and lying to the FBI but guilty of a second count of writing a false report.
Attorney Neil McElroy, who with attorney Jeffrey Helmick represented Schmeltz said his client felt "extreme relief" as he heard the verdicts. Noting that the time since the April 15, 2009, indictment has been "tense" for those involved, Mr. McElroy said the past 18 months have been exhausting.
Mr. McElroy said he was unsure what to make of the jury's decision to convict Schmeltz of making false statements on a May 30, 2004, report but to acquit him of falsifying documents two days later. But he said he was pleased that Schmeltz was able to leave last night with his family.
"I think he's relieved he can go home and spend the weekend with his family," he said.
Schmeltz and Gray left the courthouse without comment, as did Gray's attorney, Spiros Cocoves. Mr. Cocoves declined to say whether his client would appeal the verdicts.
No sentencing date was set Friday. Judge David Katz, who presided over the trial, ordered presentence reports for the defendants who were convicted. They were then released on the previously ordered bonds.
The civil rights charge for which Gray was convicted carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years; those convicted of falsifying reports face up to 20 years in prison. However, Judge Katz, who is guided by factors such as the defendants' background, has discretion in sentencing and can order a sentence from community control to time behind bars.
Judge Katz released Sheriff Telb and Captain McBroom from their pretrial bonds. After the judge concluded the case, the men were surrounded by supporters shaking hands and offering hugs.
The jury of six men and six women reached its decision after more than 23 hours of deliberations over three days in U.S. District Court in Toledo. Jurors began deliberating Wednesday morning after listening to more than six hours of closing arguments the day before.
Federal deputies escorted jurors out of the courthouse after the case concluded, keeping them out of the reach of media.
Attorney Jon Richardson, who represents Captain McBroom, said the monthlong trial has been "a terrible ordeal for his client."
"Obviously we're clearly pleased that the jury worked very, very hard. We thank them not just for their hard work but for their wisdom," he said. "Bob McBroom and James Telb didn't do anything wrong. They never did anything wrong."
Twenty-seven witnesses testified — 18 on behalf of federal prosecutors and nine called for the defense — over a period of 12 days during the trial.
During the first two weeks of the trial, testimony of the government's witnesses — including 12 sheriff's office employees — focused on a revised coroner's ruling labeling the death a homicide, whistle-blowers among the sheriff's staff, and eyewitness accounts of the alleged sleeper hold.
For the defense, medical doctors, a law enforcement trainer on the use of force, and character witnesses for the sheriff were among those who testified. Also testifying was Sheriff Telb, the lone defendant to take the stand in his own defense.
Sheriff Telb testified that he "didn't lie," but instead "didn't remember" the facts and circumstances surrounding Mr. Benton's 2004 death.
Mr. Benton, 25, who was in custody on aggravated murder charges including death-penalty specifications, died June 1, 2004, in Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, two days after he was taken from the jail unconscious and unresponsive. He had just returned to the jail after being admitted to the hospital on May 28, 2004, for seizures.
Federal prosecutors argued that Mr. Benton's death was triggered by a sleeper hold applied soon after his May 30 return to the jail. The defense countered that there were a plethora of medical reasons resulting from his seizures that led to Mr. Benton's death.
Mr. Benton's family, who were present throughout the trial, declined to comment on the verdicts.
The family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the county in December, 2009. It was put on hold pending outcome of the criminal case.
Federal prosecutors referred questions to a spokesman in Washington.
Frirday, Toledo Police Chief Michael Navarre was among the many observers who crowded in the courtroom shortly before 6 p.m. to hear the verdicts being read. The chief, who had testified as a character witness for the sheriff, said he was there to show support. "I'm very pleased that Sheriff Telb and Captain Mc- Broom were exonerated," he said.
Sheriff Telb was re-elected for a seventh term in 2008. Mr. Kerger predicted the trial will not scar the longtime sheriff's nearly 50-year law enforcement career. "I think it will leave it unmarked," he said.
Staff Writer Carl Ryan contributed to this report.
Contact Erica Blake at: email@example.com or 419-213-2134.