Federal judge orders separate juries for trial of former JEA execs Aaron Zahn, Ryan Wannemacher

A federal judge has ruled that two separate juries will be seated for the upcoming trial of former JEA executives Aaron Zahn and Ryan Wannemacher, due to how protected statements may be used during their defense.

Zahn, the utility’s former CEO, and Wannemacher, who served as his chief financial officer, were indicted in 2022 on federal charges of conspiracy and wire fraud, in connection with a proposed bonus plan that could have paid out millions of dollars if the city-owned utility had been sold. They are currently scheduled to face trial on Feb. 5.

Early in the court proceedings, defense attorneys began raising issues over statements that Zahn and Wannemacher gave to city attorneys, during an investigation into whether Zahn could be fired “with cause” in early 2020. As the two were compelled to sit for the interviews, they are subject to “Garrity rights,” which are protections given to public employees who are compelled to testify so that the information can’t be used against them in a criminal proceeding.

Following the indictment, defense attorneys asked for what’s called a “Kastigar” hearing, named after a 1972 Supreme Court decision. During that hearing, which was held in May of last year, prosecutors had to prove that their case rests solely on evidence other than the protected statements and anything derived from them. The federal magistrate judge who conducted that hearing issued two reports and recommendations last fall, finding the case was built without the use of those protected statements. Defense attorneys later filed objections to his findings, asking U.S. District Judge Brian Davis to overrule the recommendations in his final ruling.

Zahn and Wannemacher also each filed a motion to sever their trial from the other’s, so they could use the other defendant’s Garrity-protected statement in their own defense. According to the order, Wannemacher had argued that Zahn’s statement was needed to show there was no fraud involved in Wannemacher’s statements to the JEA board about the privatization effort and proposed bonus plan. Similarly, Zahn intended to use Wannemacher’s statements to reveal inconsistencies and to provide clarity and context, according to the order.

DOCUMENT: Judge orders separate juries for Aaron Zahn and Ryan Wannemacher

Davis wrote in Tuesday’s order that if Wannemacher presented Zahn’s statements in a joint trial, it would violate Zahn’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He also wrote that seating two juries would preserve both Zahn and Wannemacher’s constitutional rights while also avoiding pending questions about how to treat a co-defendants out-of-court statement, even if it is redacted. The order also states that seating two juries will save time and resources, as opposed to the alternative of having two multi-week trials, showing the same evidence and calling the same witnesses.

Last Friday, the judge denied a motion by Zahn to move the trial to Tampa, which is still within the federal court system’s Middle District of Florida. Zahn’s attorneys had argued he could not get a fair trial in Jacksonville, citing coverage of the case. But the judge ruled it was not enough of a basis to meet the legal standard to move a trial, and that the jury selection process would enable the court to select an impartial jury.

Several legal issues are still outstanding in the case, including the judge’s final ruling stemming from the Kastigar hearing, as well as other issues of evidence and witnesses raised by attorneys in recent weeks. A status conference is set for Wednesday morning, where some of these issues could be discussed.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.