A retrial is ordered after a Bahamian politician announced one of the accused had been cleared while the jury was still deliberating

By Siobhan Morrissey
October 22, 2009 07:00 AM
Kevork Djansezian/AP

After nearly four weeks in a courtroom, a Bahamian judge declared a surprise mistrial late Wednesday in the John Travolta extortion trial, leaving the actor and his attorneys mystified and upset.

Senior Supreme Court Judge Anita Allen declared a mistrial because of juror misconduct following an announcement from a local politician that one of the defendants had been acquitted – before the jurors came back with their verdict. Allen ordered a retrial, but did it remains unclear when, if ever, the case will be retried.

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“This came out of the clear blue; this was so weird,” Mike Ossi, one of Travolta s Florida lawyers told PEOPLE.

First Hint of Trouble

Ossi, an entertainment lawyer who was also a prosecution witness, says the first hint of trouble came when a police officer heard on TV that one of the defendants – a onetime Bahamian senator named Pleasant Bridgewater – had been acquitted.

“The police officer said, ‘It looks like Pleasant got off,’ ” Ossi said.

News of Bridgewater s so-called acquittal was on TV two hours before the foreman told the judge the nine-member jury was having difficulty reaching a verdict, Ossis told PEOPLE.

Bridgewater (who resigned her position as a senator with the Progressive Liberal Party in the wake of the scandal) and paramedic Tarino Lightbourn were charged with conspiring to extort $25 million from Travolta. The prosecution sought to prove they demanded money in exchange for not releasing information to the press in connection with his 16-year-old son’s death last January. Jett Travolta died on Jan. 2, following a seizure in the family vacation home on Grand Bahama island.

Travolta on the Stand

The paramedic claimed to have a medical document that Travolta signed, requesting his son be driven to the airport so he could fly the boy for treatment in Florida rather than go to the local hospital in Freeport. One of the more compelling moments of the trial occurred when Travolta stoically told the jury he did not read the document he signed because, “Time was of the essence.”

At another point, he testified about helping a nanny perform CPR on his son.

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“My son was autistic and he suffered from seizure disorder every five to 10 days,” Travolta, 55, told the court. “He would suffer a seizure that would last 45 seconds to a minute, and sleep for 12 hours.”

Lightbourn had kept the original form because it had the signature of a famous actor, another Travolta Florida attorney, Michael McDermott, testified. The paramedic ultimately enlisted the help of Bridgewater to sell the document, with the senator telling McDermott the document showed “Mr. Travolta either intentionally killed his child or was negligent, and that this document is evidence that Mr. Travolta tried to flee the jurisdiction with his child s dead body,” McDermott said.

McDermott proved central to the prosecution in that he helped capture the defendants talking about their demands on secretly recorded audio and videotape. On the tapes, the parties discuss various sums of money ranging from thousands of dollars to $25 million.

In one tape. McDermott says to Lightbourn: “You know what we’re both doing here is a criminal offense.”

Lightbourn nods and says: “Yes.”

His attorney, Bridgewater, listening in on speakerphone, says nothing.

Slow to Decide

Despite this compelling evidence, the jury, which began deliberations around 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, moved ponderously. Around 10:30 p.m., the jury told the judge they were having difficulty reaching a verdict. Judge Allen instructed them to try to resolve their differences. But 10 minutes later, the judge called a mistrial.

“John [Travolta] was upset,” Ossi says. “He wants to know more.”

It’s believed one of the jurors called a politician in Freeport and told him Bridgewater had been acquitted, Ossi said. That call would have taken place at the same time the jury was deliberating.

A mistrial came as no surprise to some court observers who predicted politics played a role throughout the trial. Bridgewater had been a rising star within the PLP when she was arrested in January. One of the prosecution’s main witnesses, Allyson Maynard-Gibson, is a PLP senator and Travolta’s Bahamian attorney. Gibson’s involvement in the case caused a great rift in the party.

Prominent members of the PLP came out in force to support Bridgewater during the trial.