By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When it came down to it, the evidence was simply too overwhelming.
That was what several jurors said on Monday after they convicted five former Bernard Madoff associates of helping to conceal his multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
The verdict -- guilty on all counts -- came after just 20 hours of deliberations, which paled in comparison to the trial's extraordinary length. At more than five months, it was one of the longest white-collar criminal trials in the history of the federal court in Manhattan.
But the jurors, interviewed after the verdict, said there was never really any doubt in their minds about the outcome.
"It was the overall picture," said Sheila Amato, an art teacher from Rockland County, a suburb of New York City. "The facts speak for themselves."
The five employees -- back-office director Daniel Bonventre, portfolio managers Annette Bongiorno and Joann Crupi and computer programmers Jerome O'Hara and George Perez -- claimed they believed Madoff's business was legitimate and were fooled into becoming unknowing accomplices.
Starting in October, the jurors heard approximately 40 witnesses testify and saw thousands of documents admitted into evidence, creating a trial transcript that reached 12,000 pages. The closing arguments stretched nearly 25 hours over two weeks.
In all, the jurors had to determine a verdict for 59 individual charges, with Bonventre alone facing 20 different counts of securities fraud, conspiracy, bank fraud, filing false tax returns, and falsifying records.
Craig Parise, a fifth-grade teacher from Westchester County, another New York suburb, said the fact that the fraud persisted for so long made it hard to believe that the defendants, some of whom worked at the firm for decades, were completely unaware.
"It would be different if it was a four-month Ponzi scheme," he said. "When it was 40 years, it's very hard to overlook that."
Defense lawyers tried to undermine the government's star witness, Madoff's top deputy, Frank DiPascali, by painting him as a career con man with a talent for deception that rivaled only that of Madoff himself.
But the jurors said they found his testimony credible and compelling.
"It was pretty captivating," Amato said of DiPascali's testimony. "It wasn't scripted."
That stood in contrast to the testimony from Bongiorno and Bonventre, who both made the unusual decision to take the stand in their own defense. The jurors emphatically rejected their claims that they had no idea what was going on.
"I don't think it helped their case," Parise said. "It was slightly insulting. I think there was a lot of coaching going on."
Another juror, Nancy Goldberg, an instructional assistant for at-risk students from Westchester, said the defense lawyers had done as well as they could without much ammunition.
"They didn't have much to work with," she said.
The trial's length forced some attrition in the jury box, with two jurors and two alternates excused because of illness or travel plans. After one juror was forced to leave in the middle of deliberations, the judge decided to move forward with only 11 members, a rare but not unheard of occurrence.
Gloria Wynn, a church pastor from the Bronx, expressed relief that the grueling case had ended.
"It was a long trial, and I'm glad it is over," she said.
Goldberg, Amato and Parise, who all work in education, became close friends, commuting together on the train.
Some of the jurors passed the time during lunch breaks by watching "The Chew," a cooking-themed talk show on ABC, in a jury lounge inside the courthouse.
All the jurors exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, Parise said, and Goldberg suggested a reunion on October 2.
"That was our first day here," she explained.
(Editing by Eddie Evans and Christopher Cushing)