They were deadlocked, jurors say, until they weighed Allen Blackthorne's state of mind and his actions.
By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 8, 2000
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- On Wednesday night, the day before Allen Blackthorne was found guilty, the jury debating his murder-for-hire charge was not convinced he intended to have his ex-wife killed.
Within two hours, and after a lot of tears Thursday morning, the panel was unanimous.
"Were we at each other's throats?" juror Jesse De Hoyos, 40, asked in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on Friday. "Yes, we were. It could have gone either way."
Jurors had one of the federal charges, arranging an act of domestic violence across state lines, settled Wednesday night after an uncontested guilty vote, said De Hoyos, a supervisor for a Texas grocery chain.
But at least two jurors were undecided on the first count, conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison, De Hoyos said.
They unified Thursday morning after examining Blackthorne's state of mind and relationship with his ex-wife, Sheila Bellush, during nine years of custody battles after their 1988 divorce.
"We deliberated until the end, going through it over again until there was no doubt," De Hoyos said.
De Hoyos was one of 12 people -- eight men and four women -- who took 33 hours to convict Blackthorne on both charges after three weeks of testimony in U.S. District Court.
"It wasn't an easy decision," said juror Stephanie Klose, 34, one of the members who was undecided Thursday.
On the same day they found Blackthorne guilty, Jose Luis Del Toro, the hitman in the murder, admitted shooting and stabbing Mrs. Bellush in her Sarasota home in 1997. Del Toro immediately was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole.
Even though Mrs. Bellush's relatives are relieved at the guilty verdict in the Blackthorne trial, the saga is not over. A drawn-out appeal is next.
"When this case goes up on appeal,
I can assure you that judges will scrutinize this record with a very fine legal comb to determine whether there is sufficient evidence upon which the jury could reach a decision of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," said Roy Barrera Jr., a prominent San Antonio criminal defense attorney who once represented Blackthorne just after Mrs. Bellush was killed.
Blackthorne's lead defense attorney, Richard Lubin, said he will try to get the guilty verdict reversed based on errors by the U.S. District Court in San Antonio.
The defense team will point out errors they say U.S. District Judge Edward C. Prado made by allowing in certain evidence or in charging the jury on what to consider and disregard.
"It's a sad statement of our system that you can be convicted based on assassination of character," Lubin said Friday.
Paperwork for the appeal will be filed after Blackthorne, 45, is sentenced Nov. 2 in San Antonio.
"My sense is, on appeal, this record is going to look like overwhelming evidence," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin, who prosecuted the case with Assistant U.S. Attorney John Murphy and whose specialty is appellate issues.
Durbin and Murphy both said Friday that they were careful not to include evidence in the prosecution that could be viewed as prejudicial by an appellate judge. For example, prosecutors did not include a conversation that Kerry Bladorn said she had with her sister, Mrs. Bellush. In the phone conversation, Mrs. Bellush said she feared being killed by her ex-husband, but if it happened, she would go to heaven because she was at peace with the Lord, Bladorn said.
Prosecutors also did not include testimony from a doctor who prescribed medication for Mrs. Bellush's anxiety, apparently over her run-ins with Blackthorne.
What jurors did hear in the trial became the basis of their deliberations that started June 29 after prosecutors had the last word, saying Blackthorne had a "murderous hatred" for his ex-wife because he could not regain custody of their daughters, Stevie and Daryl.
The first night of deliberations, jurors took their first vote to gauge where they stood on the verdict.
"We had some guilty. Some not guilty. Some undecided," De Hoyos said.
The jury also drew up some ground rules. Aside from talking one at a time and not leveling personal attacks, jurors agreed they would not persuade or try to sway each other, De Hoyos said.
"We were willing to have a hung jury on count one before anyone felt they were pressured," he said.
De Hoyos was not sure that first night of deliberations whether Blackthorne was responsible for the murder of his ex-wife.
The prosecution's key witness was Daniel Alex Rocha, the accomplice and bookmaker with a gambling problem. Rocha, who gambled and golfed with Blackthorne, lied to authorities after his arrest to try to get out of trouble. He also asked friends to make up evidence against Blackthorne.
Defense attorneys blamed Rocha for the murder, saying he planned it to ingratiate himself to Blackthorne, a self-made millionaire. Rocha, defense attorneys said, wanted money to open a sports bar.
In the beginning, it was looking good for the defense team. After Rocha stepped down from the witness stand, some jurors had a problem with his credibility.
De Hoyos said to himself, "Are you kidding me? My thought was if that's all the state has, the state's in trouble."
But the jury heard the rest of the testimony and saw telephone records, linking Blackthorne's telephone lines in San Antonio to places in Florida.
De Hoyos said jurors also listened to the teenage daughters of Mrs. Bellush and Blackthorne, Stevie and Daryl, who testified that after their mother was killed, Blackthorne never called to see if they were okay.
"Doesn't that strike you as odd?" De Hoyos asked.
Six weeks before the murder, Mrs. Bellush, 35, moved to Sarasota from San Antonio with the daughters she had with Blackthorne; her new husband, Jamie Bellush; and their quadruplet toddlers.
The fact that Blackthorne hired a private detective in Bradenton to find his ex-wife's address in Sarasota was telling, De Hoyos said. Prosecutors told the jurors that Blackthorne gave the address to Rocha, who gave it to the other accomplice and the hitman.
"I think the address was the key," De Hoyos said. There was no evidence, he continued, that Rocha had tried to find the address on his own.
Jurors who were conflicted on Thursday morning had doubt whether Blackthorne intended for his ex-wife to be killed. To figure it out, jurors had to consider Blackthorne's state of mind.
"In order for him to intend for her to be murdered, he had to have the state of mind that he wanted her killed," De Hoyos said.
Jurors heard from witnesses who said they heard Blackthorne say he wanted his ex-wife's tongue ripped out or her body dumped in the ocean or woods.
"There was state of mind," De Hoyos said.
Klose, the other juror, was one of the members who was not 100 percent convinced Thursday morning that Blackthorne was guilty on the murder-for-hire count.
Klose said she reviewed the judge's instructions on how to deliberate and what evidence to use to reach a verdict.
"You have to infer from circumstances surrounding the case that this is what he intended," she said. "It was very difficult. There was a lot of evidence to consider. I think he intended her death."
Klose said she cried. So did De Hoyos.
Said De Hoyos: "You can't take lightly the thought of sending someone to prison for the rest of their life."