Jury questions, instructions outlined in Atkinson case

The trial in the federal bribery case against Brownsville Independent School District Trustee Sylvia Atkinson is set to begin on Oct.15.

Prosecutors on Tuesday filed a requested voir dire detailing questions they plan to ask jurors during selection, as well as proposed jury instructions.

The trustee faces eight counts including conspiracy, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, and violation of the Travel Act-State Bribery Law stemming from an indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in December 2019.

Prosecutors accused Atkinson in the document of soliciting and accepting a $10,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as an employee of local film production and advertising company Pink Ape Media. In total she faces up to 45 years in prison and a fine that could total $2 million, in addition to any funds subject to forfeiture.

Prosecutors are proposing 27 jury instructions, most of which contain information detailing what needs to be proven and to what extent in order to convict Atkinson on each count. The jury must have a unanimous verdict on each count of the indictment.

Under the proposed instructions, the government must prove that Atkinson acted knowingly and willingly and that the actions she is accused of occurred within the court’s jurisdiction. The document also includes definitions of language contained in the indictment, like “interstate commerce” — related to the Travel Act-State Bribery charges.

Jurors are given directions to help determine the accuracy of each witness, to evaluate the defendant in the same way as any other witness, and to weigh “with great care” testimony from a witness who provides evidence as an informer for pay or immunity from punishment.

The instructions detailed that charges accuse Atkinson of committing conspiracy in three different ways — through extortion under color of official right, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, or using a facility in interstate commerce to carry on unlawful activity.

The government does not have to prove all three of these, but rather the jurors could return a guilty verdict on one. However, each juror must agree that the same one has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the document stated.

Potential jurors will also be asked if they know Atkinson, her attorneys Dale Robertson and Noe Garza, U.S. Attorneys Jody Young and Robert Johnson, and FBI Special Agent Michael Coblin.

Prosecutors also state that jurors will hear from a witness who has been a confidential informant for the government, who may also hope to get some type of benefit by cooperating with the U.S. in the case. The proposed voir dire asks jurors whether they would disbelieve a witness who is hoping to receive some sort of benefit from the government.

esheridan@brownsvilleherld.com