Jurors open pocketbooks to help Fort Worth-area crime victim

Posted by: Andee / Category:

Star-Telegram staff writer

FORT WORTH -- On Friday afternoon, a Tarrant County jury sentenced an Azle woman to five years in prison and assessed a $10,000 fine for stealing a mentally impaired man's life savings.

But they didn't stop there.

Jurors decided after the trial that they wanted to donate money to 58-year-old Johnny Bryant to help him recoup some of his loss. Most were going to start with the $166 they received for their jury service.

"I've never seen anything like this in my 44 years of law practice," said prosecutor Joe Shannon, who fired off a personal check for $250 for the fund. "They know that the guy has been wronged and they wanted to right it a little bit."

Crystal Jones, 22, the jury forewoman, said a couple of jurors had relatives or friends who are mentally disabled and really felt for Bryant.

"If that was our brother or friend, we would hope someone would do it for us," Jones said, adding that she has an autistic brother. "It was emotional for many of us."

The jury of eight women and four men deliberated about two hours on Friday before sentencing Cynthia Sue Hardee, 46, to five years in prison for one count of theft of property and one count of misapplication of fiduciary property. On Thursday, the jury found Hardee guilty of helping herself to at least $75,000 of Bryant's retirement money after the pair opened a checking account together.

The background

According to court testimony, Bryant, who can't read or do math, had $151,000 in a profit-sharing account after working for more than three decades stocking shelves at various grocery stores.

In the summer of 2002, Bryant had to make a decision about what to do with his retirement money after Brookshire's purchased the Winn Dixie where he was working. Bryant cashed $111,000 after taxes and penalties, and Hardee helped him open a checking account so they could start a "business" together. Although they had lots of ideas, a business never developed.

On Friday, Hardee's defense attorney, Danny Burns, urged the jury to sentence Hardee to probation, characterizing her as a good, churchgoing woman who made a terrible mistake but deserved a second chance.

"She took on a task that she couldn't handle and did some really dumb stuff," Burns said.

Burns reminded the jury about the friends and fellow church members who testified that Hardee was a kind, loving person who was always willing to help people.

"We have someone who is a good person overall but made a tragic error in judgment," Burns said. "We need to help that person, to save them. I submit we can do that with Cynthia Hardee. ... Show some mercy. Do what is right."

In his final summation, prosecutor Shannon, who handled the case with Tonya Harlan, asked jurors to give Hardee something closer to the maximum of 10 years in prison. "Part of the reason for assessing punishment is to deter the conduct of other people," Shannon said. "... We are not going to tolerate taking the life savings of a man who got dealt a bad set of cards when he was born."

The deliberations

Jones, the jury forewoman, said deciding Hardee's punishment was difficult. They took into consideration that it was her first offense and that she had no clue how to run a business. But they also looked at the crime and considered the victim.

Later, after Hardee was sentenced, Jones said she commented to the others that she wanted to start a fund for Bryant. The other jurors agreed.

The case "touched every one of our hearts," she said.

When the jurors told Shannon of their intentions, he decided to write a check for $250. His investigator then gathered the jurors' information and told them he would contact them after a fund was officially set up. That happened Friday afternoon.

Jenny Bosley, Johnny's sister, said she started crying after Shannon called her and told her of the jurors' gesture.

"Oh my gosh," Bosley said. "I couldn't believe it."

She said the IRS keeps sending him letters, claiming that Bryant owes $40,000 -- more taxes and penalties for cashing out his retirement plan early.

How to help

To contribute to the fund for Johnny Bryant, send a donation to:

Wells Fargo

5322 Blue Mound Road

Fort Worth, TX 76106

Attention: Daisy or Amy

Acct: 4077

Bank officials request that checks or money orders be in the name of Johnny's sister, Jenny Bosley, who opened the account in care of Bryant.