From the Tampa Tribune


Ippolito juror failed to tell criminal past


TAMPA - A juror with a longer criminal history than the people he convicted uses the trial to avoid jail himself.

A juror who shielded his lengthy criminal history from a federal judge then used jury service in a high-profile trial to avoid his own 60-day jail sentence.

Matthew L. Finch, 30, of Safety Harbor was one of 12 federal jurors who convicted Emilio Ippolito and six followers last summer. Jurors were granted the rare privilege of anonymity out of concern that Ippolito"s followers would threaten them.

But Finch"s name came to light months later when defense attorneys and U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday learned that ``Juror 505"" was on probation throughout the 11-week trial - a fact that Finch did not disclose during jury selection.

Finch was arrested in June 1996, accused of driving with a suspended license, according to Pinellas County court records. In October 1996, he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and 18 months probation. But Finch served only one day - the day of his arrest before he posted bail.

Last month, Finch and his attorney argued before Pinellas Circuit Judge Douglas Baird that Finch should not have to serve another day because of his jury service in the Ippolito case. ``He had some concern that his safety in the jail might be in jeopardy,"" Baird said Thursday. He signed an order Tuesday waiving the jail sentence.

Ippolito, the founder and a ``judge"" in his self-styled court, faces up to 186 years for sending threats to judges and jurors across the nation.

Since the Ippolito trial, Finch"s name and picture have been posted on the Internet. Federal prosecutor Ernest Peluso announced in court Monday that a criminal investigation is ongoing to determine how the juror"s anonymity was violated.

Before the sentence was waived, Peluso said he told Finch ``the government would not help or hinder or influence any decision"" regarding the Pinellas case, according to a transcript of Wednesday"s court hearing.

Peluso said he also was contacted by a representative from the Pinellas State Attorney"s Office and Finch"s attorney.

``I would not even confirm that I knew the juror, and referred the attorney to your [Merryday"s] chambers,"" Peluso told the judge. ``I declined to participate in any way. And I wouldn"t even talk about it, even in hypothetical terms, because I felt to even confirm that I had a relationship with such an individual would be information that would be at least technically inconsistent"" with the judge"s anonymity order.

Peluso said he also wanted to avoid accusations of trying to influence the juror"s testimony about his role in the trial.

Finch -is the subject of defense motions for a new trial for Ippolito, 72, of Tampa and members of his anti-government Common Law Court. Defense attorneys claim that by hiding his extensive criminal history, Finch violated their clients" right to a fair trial.

``He chose to deliberately mislead this court with the partial revelation of his prior record,"" defense lawyer Stephen Crawford told Merryday at a hearing Wednesday.

At the start of the trial last summer, Merryday asked prospective jurors if they had ever been charged with a crime that could send them prison. Finch answered that he had been charged with driving with a suspended license after he failed to pay a traffic ticket.

The charge had been taken care of, ``no problem,"" Finch told Merryday. He did not mention he was on probation and needed to serve 59 remaining days in jail. Also, his license was suspended for being a habitual traffic offender - not for an unpaid ticket.

Finch also did not tell the judge he has a 10-year criminal history that includes charges of burglary and grand theft, disorderly conduct and obtaining property with a worthless check.

Finch"s criminal history is longer than the defendants" in the Ippolito case.

Another defense attorney, Ron Smith, said Finch used his jury service and multiple guilty votes against Ippolito"s group as a ``springboard to benefit.""

``The only reason the assistant state attorney would call over to the U.S. Attorney is to see if, in fact, the defendant/juror did any good for the U.S. Attorney,"" Smith said.

Baird said Assistant State Attorney Magda McSwain ``understood the safety concern, and she was not adamant about having him do the 60 days.""

McSwain did not return telephone calls Thursday.

Finch"s probation officer, Dave Rice, did not return telephone calls Thursday. His regional director, Joe Papy, said, ``We"re not going to comment on anything right now.""

Finch"s attorney, John Finch, said Wednesday his client received no

preferential treatment.

Merryday has not ruled on new trial motions. If the motions are denied, Ippolito and his followers will be sentenced in June.

Jacqueline Soteropoulos covers federal court and can be reached at (813) 259-7800.

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