Jury begins deliberations in Robinson trial Thursday morning

By: - September 30, 2021 9:00 am
Shelby County Courthouse. (Photo: ShelbyCounty.gov)

Shelby County Courthouse. (Photo: ShelbyCounty.gov)

Arguments in the trial of  Sen. Katrina Robinson closed on Wednesday in Memphis after Robinson testified in her own defense. The jury will begin deliberation on Thursday morning. 

Judge Sheryl Lipman dismissed 15 charges late Sunday evening, including all counts of embezzlement, after determining that federal prosecutors had not presented enough evidence to put those charges in front of the jury. Robinson, a Democrat elected to represent southeast Memphis in 2018, now faces five counts of wire fraud.

State Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Wednesday’s proceedings started with testimony from Sen. Robinson and ended with closing arguments, handled by U.S. attorney Scott Smith and defense attorney Janika White. Judge Sheryl Lipman offered extensive legal direction to jurors about the elements necessary to prove fraud and instructed the jury to ignore dozens of exhibits and hours of witness testimony related to charges that had been dismissed.

That dismissal has significantly narrowed the scope of the trial, which now focuses on two charges related to purchases made by Robinson in June 2016, which total just under $3500, and three charges regarding grant reports filed by The Health Institute in 2017, 2018, and 2019. 

Robinson testified that she completed numerous grant reports on a yearly basis. She said that the reports in question were comprised largely of demographic data and were due after funding had been awarded for the subsequent year. According to Robinson, data entry for the annual reports often fell to administrative assistants at THI, a fact confirmed by earlier testimony from Iesha Wesley, a former employee. 

On direct examination, Robinson described deposits made into the THI operating account to cover any expenses she made out of the account in June 2016. She showed the jury corresponding bank slips. At the time, said Robinson, she was afraid to use her personal account because it was under review for approval for a home loan.

U.S. attorney Chris Cotten questioned Robinson. His focus stayed on an email she sent to her accountants, the key piece of evidence offered by the prosecution. In the email, Robinson responded to her accountant’s requests for clarification on a bundle of transactions, two of which relate to Robinson’s wedding. At different points in the email, Robinson references both federal grant funds and the THI operating account, which allowed personal expenditures under certain provisions and with accountants’ oversight.

At times, Robinson clarified Cotten’s questions on cross examination. “I’m not going to let you tell half the story, Mr. Cotten,” said Robinson at one point. 

During his closing argument for the prosecution, federal Scott Smith alleged that Robinson knowingly executed a scheme to defraud the federal government with yearly grant reports in order to intentionally misuse federal grant funds awarded to THI. This scheme, according to Smith, consisted of inflating the numbers of enrolled students on reports and claiming fake scholarships from grant funds. Good reports, argued Smith, kept grant money coming in. Smith directed the jury to inaccuracies on grant reports and to the email sent from Robinson to THI’s accounting firm.

Robinson has maintained her innocence since she was first indicted in July 2020, when U.S. attorneys alleged 48 total counts of embezzlement and fraud. Janika White, one of Robinson’s attorneys,  argued that the prosecution depended on critical testimony from federal employees without an understanding of THI’s finances and grant reporting.

 Nina Tumosa, the federal grant officer overseeing THI’s funding, and Jonathan Nyaku, Robinson’s CPA, worked closely with Robinson to steward grant funds. Both testified to Robinson’s professionalism and transparency. Further, said White, reporting inaccuracies were human errors and had no bearing on continued funding—rather, reports often undercounted THI’s students. The federal investigation surprised everyone involved, including Tumosa, the government’s grant officer.

White told the jury that U.S. attorneys had presented a skewed, incomplete picture of Katrina Robinson and THI. “At the beginning of this trial, the government promised it would prove Katrina Robinson stole $600,000,” White told the jury late in the afternoon on Wednesday. “Now we are down to $3,486 and an email.”

The foundation of Robinson’s defense is her history of communication with federal grant officers and the CPAs she hired to help THI stay organized and compliant throughout the life of the grant. Defense attorneys spent much of the trial highlighting inconsistencies in the prosecution’s theory of the case, arguing that it didn’t give any proof of intent and relied more on implication than evidence. 

“The government has asked you to speculate at every turn,” White told the jury late in the afternoon on Wednesday. “It is asking you to rule on proof you do not have.” 

 

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Eli Motycka
Eli Motycka

Writer based, born and raised in Nashville. Interested in land use, physical internet infrastructure, expos, and the fossil fuel supply chain. Motycka has written stories for the Lookout on marijuana alternative Delta 8, a guaranteed income experiment in North Nashville and the state's opioid crisis. Message me at [email protected] or on Twitter.

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