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News Analysis: What Are the McDonnell Jurors Thinking?



Money problems. A marriage on the rocks. A lonely wife taken in by a scoundrel.

No one saw that defense coming in Richmond last week — a Jerry Springer-style script from the couple who once occupied the Executive Mansion, the most dignified address in Virginia.

Around the water cooler, talk bubbles about the federal corruption trial of Bob and Maureen McDonnell and the suddenly aired domestic troubles their lawyers are hanging their hats on.

True or cooked up? Desperate or brilliant — in its own we’re-all-just-flawed-humans way?

Settling the fact-or-fiction question lies with the jury. They’re facing at least another month of testimony, and based on the one week they’ve just put in, their hands will be plenty full.

Among the head-spinners so far:

Was Maureen McDonnell’s relationship with businessman Jonnie Williams a matter of the heart, as she says, or merely financial back-scratching, as the man who showered her family with gifts says?

Which fact weighs more:

That she and Williams swapped phone calls or text messages several times a day for nearly two years — or that she asked him to buy her husband a Rolex, an odd thing to request from a “crush,” as her lawyers described her feelings for Williams?

Which image is more believable:

The photos of the McDonnells holding hands earlier this year, and smiling behind the wheel of Williams’ Ferrari – or the cool and distant relationship they now display in court?

Which description is more accurate:

Maureen McDonnell as a money-hungry conniver — or a dupe used by a charming cad to gain access to her clueless husband? That one comes with a third option: Maureen McDonnell as a wife now taking one for the team — being thrown under the proverbial bus to save her not-so-clueless husband.

Pinning their defense on a portrait of human foibles could play either way in court. Jurors might relate to a marriage under stress, identify with financial trouble, and feel sympathy for a frustrated, ignored wife and a hardworking, underappreciated husband.

Or it could backfire, generating disdain for a couple who enjoyed a six-figure salary and a free, fully staffed mansion, who stood on the family-values soapbox for years but now say they’ve been faking a happy union as far back as his candidacy for governor.

It all depends on the mindset of the eight men and four women who’ve been drafted to sit in judgment.

“Do you have 12 people who see the world in black and white,” said Chuck James, a former federal prosecutor who now works for Williams Mullen, “or 12 who see it based on personal experiences, with shades of gray?”

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