SANTA ANA - A jury acquitted former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona of charges that he took bribes in exchange for the power of his office, a verdict that stunned the courtroom and was hailed by the elated defendant as "an absolute miracle."
Carona was convicted of one witness-tampering count, but the jury rejected the heart of a case that federal prosecutors spent five years assembling against the former head of the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department.
He had been accused of doing favors for a multimillionaire businessman and appointing him assistant sheriff in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts. Several jurors said they believed Carona was involved in misconduct but the government didn't prove its case.
Carona, 53, began shaking as the verdicts were being read in U.S. District Court, then put his head down on the counsel table and sobbed.
In the gallery, his wife, Deborah, and friends gasped. "Oh my God!" said his wife who, along with her husband's ex-mistress, faces related charges.
The conspiracy charge alone alleged 64 overt criminal acts. The statute of limitations expired on most of those acts, but the jury only had to find one of the remaining acts true for a conspiracy conviction.
"If you all don't believe in miracles, if you don't believe in God, what you just witnessed was an absolute miracle and God is watching over me," Carona said later. "Based on what you heard in this trial, some of the salacious stuff, there's a lot of things I need to apologize for in my life.
"I've made some mistakes along the way. The good news is God forgives people and apparently I'm one of the people he forgave."
If convicted of all counts, Carona could have spent the rest of his life in prison. He instead faces up to 20 years, but is likely to get only two or three, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Julian. The defense said probation is possible.