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    Lawyers seeking new trial for Blackthorne

    They cite court errors, trial publicity and a report never disclosed at the Texas businessman's murder trial.

    By LEANORA MINAI

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 15, 2000


    Allen Blackthorne, the Texas businessman convicted of plotting his ex-wife's murder, is asking the U.S. District Court to declare him innocent or order a new trial.

    Before a federal judge rules on the request, Blackthorne has asked for a hearing so his attorneys can question the jurors who convicted him of arranging the death of Sheila Bellush, a Sarasota mother of six, including quadruplets.

    "There's no one who studies our legal system who thinks mistakes don't happen, and one happened here, and it's a tragedy," one of Blackthorne's attorneys, Richard Lubin, said Monday.

    Among the issues cited for an acquittal or new trial to U.S. District Judge Edward C. Prado, according to the 42-page motion:

    Federal prosecutors did not disclose an investigative report by the lead case investigator.

    Court errors.

    Trial publicity.

    Richard L. Durbin Jr., assistant U.S. attorney, said late Monday that he had not received or reviewed Blackthorne's motion but plans to fight it.

    "I think the evidence against him was overwhelming," Durbin said. "By the time the case was over, there was no room for any doubt, period, of what Mr. Blackthorne had done, and I suspect anybody who sat throughout that trial had the same impression."

    On July 6, a jury of eight men and four women convicted Blackthorne of conspiring to commit murder-for-hire and of arranging an act of domestic violence across state lines. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. His sentencing is Nov. 2 in San Antonio, Texas.

    The verdict came after 33 hours of deliberations and followed, by a few hours, an announcement in Florida by hit man Jose Luis Del Toro Jr., who confessed to murdering Mrs. Bellush in Sarasota in 1997.

    The defense attorneys say Blackthorne was denied a fair trial.

    In their motion, they give the most attention to prosecutors' failure to disclose to the defense team an investigative report by Texas Ranger Gary De Los Santos. The report is based on witness interviews and case work.

    Lubin and defense attorney David L. Botsford said they did not have the report for Blackthorne's trial, adding that it would have helped them point out to the jury inconsistencies in testimony from the middlemen in the murder-for-hire: Sammy Gonzales and Danny Rocha.

    Blackthorne's attorneys pulled 20 examples from the report to illustrate areas that could have bolstered the defense.

    De Los Santos wrote in the report that Rocha -- the prosecution's star witness and only link to Blackthorne -- termed parts of his own story "bull----."

    De Los Santos wrote that, as of Feb. 1, 1999, he thought Rocha was trying to solicit a bribe from Blackthorne, which was Blackthorne's defense.

    Durbin, who helped prosecute Blackthorne, said he was not required to give the defense the De Los Santos report because De Los Santos was not called as a witness for the prosecution.

    Blackthorne's attorneys also say the court committed errors.

    Jurors were shown grisly crime scene photographs and were not allowed to hear from the man who gave Rocha a polygraph exam, defense attorneys say.

    Also, jurors were told not to consider as fact a sexual abuse allegation against Blackthorne. Defense attorneys say that instruction was not enough because jurors wound up discussing the allegation during deliberations.

    Finally, jurors did not follow the court's order to refrain from reading or listening to any publicity, defense attorneys said.

    The attorneys said jurors might have been exposed to TV or radio coverage of the case the morning of the verdict.

    The St. Petersburg Times interviewed two jurors after the verdict. Juror Stephanie Klose told the Times she was reluctant to comment because another newspaper had taken out of context her comments during jury selection.

    Juror Stephanie Rogers told the Times she would not comment because a story that "discredited" the judge had been written during the trial.

    No court date has been set for a hearing on Blackthorne's request for acquittal or a new trial.

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