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Blackthorne verdict on hold for weekend

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2000


SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- After deliberating nine hours, jurors in the murder-for-hire trial of Allen Blackthorne adjourned late Friday for the July Fourth weekend.

The panel of eight men and four women will return Monday to U.S. District Court to decide whether Blackthorne planned the murder of his ex-wife, Sheila Bellush.

"I don't think it's an easy decision," Judge Edward C. Prado said outside his courtroom. "It's not one of those, "Oh, it's so obvious.' It's a tense situation. It's a lot of stress."

Blackthorne's lead attorney, Richard Lubin, was disappointed with the ruling to allow jurors to break for the weekend.

"My request would be that they keep working," Lubin told the judge before meeting with Blackthorne in a courthouse holding cell.

Jurors sent eight notes to Prado throughout the day, ordering more markers and asking for an evidence list, copies of transcripts and videotapes.

Members of Sheila Bellush's family and the women who have bonded with her mother during the trial sat outside the third-floor courtroom.

Blackthorne's supporters -- his wife, Maureen Blackthorne, and a few friends -- passed most of the day waiting on the first floor.

Every now and then, Mrs. Blackthorne rode the elevator upstairs, where a crowd of reporters and curious residents stood or sat on the floor with their legs crossed.

"Hanging in there," said Mrs. Blackthorne, 39.

Her 45-year-old husband, who made millions developing a medical device that stimulates muscles, was indicted earlier this year on federal charges of conspiring to commit murder-for-hire and of arranging an act of domestic violence across state lines.

Prosecutors say Blackthorne asked San Antonio resident Danny Rocha, a bookmaker and golfing buddy, to find someone to kill his ex-wife because he was unable to regain custody of the couple's two daughters after a nine-year court battle.

Rocha, 30 is serving a life sentence for his role in Bellush's murder.

Bellush, 35, was killed inside her Sarasota home on Nov. 7, 1997, six weeks after she moved from San Antonio with the two daughters she had with Blackthorne; her new husband, Jamie Bellush; and their quadruplet toddlers.

Jurors began deliberations just after 6 p.m. Thursday. After a steak dinner and a slice of cheesecake for the judge, they stopped for the day.

On Friday morning, they debated for nearly three hours before climbing on a bus bound for lunch at a Mexican restaurant.

Before the lunch break, juror Johnie R. Blea, a married letter carrier, sent the judge one of the eight notes. He wanted to see the trial transcript that covered Rocha's testimony about a jailhouse interview on the TV show 48 Hours.

On the show, Rocha said Blackthorne had nothing to do with the murder.

Rocha, during cross-examination on the second day of the trial, testified of Blackthorne: "He actually never ordered the murder."

Rocha did say, however, that Blackthorne asked him whether he knew someone who would kill his ex-wife.

Judge Prado did not send the transcript and told jurors to rely on their memory, sparking an objection from defense attorney David Botsford.

"It renders the jury deliberation process unreliable," Botsford told the judge.

At 4:15 p.m., jurors asked another question pertaining to testimony of Blackthorne's secretary. Again, the judge asked the jury to rely on memory.

Before the jury ended for the day just after 7 p.m., defense attorneys told the judge they feared jurors would hear a statement Rocha had released through his attorney.

"I understand that there are no excuses for my taking part in the crime," Rocha said. "I pray that with my cooperation in this case, it will help the Bellush family find some closure they justly deserve."

His statement was read on the 5 p.m. news Friday.

The case has lured true crime author Ann Rule, who wrote autographs of her hardcover and paperback books during breaks in court testimony. A Golf magazine writer and People magazine correspondent also joined the frenzy, as well as television producers for Good Morning America.

San Antonio resident Marlyne Horner came to the trial because one of the prosecutors is married to her cousin. A member of Blackthorne's country club, Horner also has a friend building a house across from Blackthorne's.

"I think it's almost like watching a soap opera," said Horner, a 50-year-old third-grade teacher. "You think you're not going to tune in the next day, but you're hooked."

For the families involved, the past two years have been horror.

Bellush's mother, Gene Smith, woke up Friday -- the first full day of jury deliberations -- with one thought.

"If they don't get Allen, I don't think I can live," said Smith, 64, who had nine guardian angels pinned on her jacket.

Mrs. Blackthorne says she has tried to shield her two sons, Brandon, 5, and Jacob, 2, from the drama. They played at home Friday with their nanny and grandmother.

Mrs. Blackthorne told the boys their father is "in a big building downtown."

"We just don't use the word jail," she said.

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