By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Five former Bernard Madoff aides have asked a federal judge to throw out their convictions, three weeks after a jury found them guilty of fraud and conspiracy for helping Madoff conceal his multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
Former back-office director Daniel Bonventre, computer programmers George Perez and Jerome O'Hara and portfolio managers Annette Bongiorno and Joann Crupi told U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain that the government's evidence could not support the verdict and that prosecutors had delivered inappropriate and inflammatory closing arguments.
"While we generally have great faith in the jury system, we earnestly believe that this is one of those rare cases where the jury's verdict reflects a grave miscarriage of justice," wrote Perez's lawyer, Larry Krantz, in a motion filed on Tuesday.
The defendants, found guilty after one of the longest white-collar trials in New York history, also asked Swain to order a new trial in the alternative.
A spokeswoman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declined to comment.
Prosecutors had accused the five former employees of helping Madoff conceal his massive scheme, which lasted for decades and cost investors an estimated $17 billion in principal. Madoff, 75, is serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in March 2009. He has claimed sole responsibility for the fraud.
Nine other people have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme, some of whom appeared as government witnesses at the trial pursuant to plea agreements.
There was little dispute that the defendants had engaged in activities such as backdating fake trades and creating falsified documents. But the employees argued at trial that they were unaware at the time that they were doing anything illegal, blinded by Madoff's considerable charm and ability to lie convincingly.
The jury, however, found them guilty on every count.
The acquittal motions focused heavily on the government's closing arguments, in particular the rebuttal delivered by Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Jackson that stood as the final word to the jury.
The summations, the defense lawyers asserted, misstated the record and improperly characterized the defense as "ridiculous."
"It quickly became apparent that the government's summation was not destined to be a traditional summary of evidence, leavened with argument, but was instead to be a slick and highly orchestrated production aimed at lumping the five defendants together in an undifferentiated mass," Crupi's lawyer, Eric Breslin, wrote.
Several defense lawyers faulted Jackson for invoking former U.S. District Judge Constance Baker Motley, a civil rights activist and the first African-American chief judge in Manhattan federal court, suggesting it was an attempt to make a racial appeal to the jurors, many of whom were African-American.
The defendants also contended that the evidence introduced at trial was not enough to support a guilty verdict, with Breslin claiming the convictions were "based on nothing more than speculation and government wishful thinking."
If Swain denies the motions, the defendants are expected to appeal their convictions to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The five defendants are scheduled to be sentenced in July.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown)