LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (WMBB) — A federal jury will not hear about several topics that a local business owner and his defense team had previously been making the centerpiece of their case.
James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, is the sole remaining defendant in the Lynn Haven corruption case. He is accused of conspiracy and bribery connected to $45,000 in payments to then-sitting city commissioner, Antonious Barnes. Finch says the money was not a bribe but was, instead, a loan to start a new business. Barnes took the stand in December and agreed with him, also saying the money, which was never paid back, was not a bribe.
Barnes plead guilty to a lesser charge in connection to the case. Several others, including Lynn Haven’s former mayor, former city manager, and former attorney have pleaded guilty to felonies in the case.
As Finch fought the charges his defense team turned the spotlight on the investigators, federal prosecutors, the grand jury process, and witnesses in hopes of getting a dismissal. This two-year battle ended with Finch facing only two charges.
However, the jury will not hear about most of these issues, Judge Mark Walker ruled. That includes text messages between current Lynn Haven Police Chief Ricky Ramie and then City Manager Mike White.
“To the extent, these salacious text messages and the subsequent political fallout in the City of Lynn Haven have any probative value—which this Court doubts—it is substantially outweighed by the undue prejudice that would result from admitting evidence on these points,” Walker wrote.
He added that Finch cannot “raise general attacks on the grand jury process.”
“Permitting such evidence or argument would be tantamount to permitting Finch to relitigate the grand jury’s decision or the validity of the indictment itself—both issues that have been thoroughly litigated and neither of which are the province of the jury to decide,” Walker wrote.
Finch also cannot attack the integrity of the investigation generally, suggest that it was a vindictive prosecution, bring up allegations of policy violations by Department of Justice employees, tell the jury about alleged violations of the Sixth Amendment, or talk about the alleged criminal conduct of non-witnesses.
Finch’s team had previously argued that he was set up by another contractor, Derwin White, who has since died.
“The minimal probative value this evidence would offer is substantially outweighed by the danger that the jury will be confused about the issues it is tasked with deciding,” Walker wrote. “Namely, this evidence poses a serious risk that the jury will consider whether the conduct of uncharged individuals is criminal rather than considering the charges against Finch.”
Also, the fact that federal prosecutors and the defense may have spoken with the media will not be part of the trial.
“This Court finds that the Government’s interaction with the press is not probative of any offense charged in this case. The issue of who talked to the press on either side is not relevant,” Walker wrote. “This Court will note that, similarly, the Government will not be permitted to introduce evidence or argument of Finch talking to the press generally (the substance of what he said is a different matter).”
The trial is set for March 13.