ATHENS — In a federal courtroom one mile from Sanford Stadium, former Georgia football coach Jim Donnan posted the biggest victory of his life Friday.
A jury of seven women and five men found Donnan not guilty on all 41 counts of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy that the government had brought against him in connection with an alleged investment scheme.
In the moments after the verdict was read by U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal, Donnan hugged his attorneys, wife and other family members and seemed to fight back tears.
The former coach knew a different verdict could have led to a lengthy prison sentence.
“I’ve played in front of 80,000 people at Lincoln, Nebraska, played in an Orange Bowl for a national championship, played for the national championship at Marshall, played against Florida,” Donnan said later Friday in an interview at his Athens home. “And nothing even comes close to approximating that minute when the judge announced the verdict.
“The apprehension and anxiety were overwhelming. You could see the emotion on my family and myself.”
Prosecutors had argued that Donnan and another man, Greg Crabtree, ran a scheme from 2007 through 2010, promising investors high rates of return from a West Virginia-based business, GLC, that sold closeout merchandise. But the company sold relatively little merchandise and instead repaid early investors with the contributioins of later investors in what amounted to a Ponzi scheme, prosecutors told the jury.
Donnan’s attorneys, Ed Tolley and Jerry Froelich, countered that Donnan was duped by Crabtree and thought GLC was a legitimate business and a great investment opportunity that he wanted to share with family members and friends.
Jurors found insufficient evidence to support the prosecution’s position that Donnan knew the business was fraudulent, jury foreman Artis Ricks said in an interview after the verdict was reached.
“I just never saw that smoking gun that proved guilt,” Ricks said. “I kept thinking every single day (during the trial) that the government was going to pull out a smoking gun. And there never was.”
Ricks said testimony revealed Donnan solicited help to try to resolve GLC’s problems when they became apparent in 2010.
“That doesn’t sound like something a guilty person would do,” Ricks said.
The jury foreman also noted Donnan brought in his son and son-in-law as GLC investors.
“I didn’t think he’d go into something to harm his family,” said Ricks, citing Donnan’s “overall character.”
Prosecutors called dozens of witnesses in the trial, which began May 6, while the defense called just three witnesses. Jurors deliberated for 12 hours over parts of three days after getting the case Wednesday afternoon.
Shortly after returning from their lunch break Friday, the jury informed the judge it had reached a verdict.
After the jury returned to the courtroom and passed the verdict form to the judge, he looked it over, confirmed that every juror had signed it and announced the “not guilty” box had been checked beside each count. With that, the jury was dismissed and the case was over.
“I had an inner calm from the standpoint that I knew my innocence,” Donnan said later. “But at the same time, there was a lot of what-ifs involved.
“Particularly at my age (69), you’re looking down the barrel of trying to speculate. I tried to keep from doing that as much as possible because I just tried to keep positive.”
Donnan revealed in the interview that prosecutors had offered him a plea deal before the trial, but he said it would have involved jail time and was quickly rejected.
“I felt like there’s no way I could look at my children or my grandchildren or my wife (if) knowing my innoncence I take something like that,” Donnan said. “I was going to go in and defend myself.”
Tolley, one of Donnan’s attorneys, said after the verdict that when he started practicing law he was advised not to get personally involved in cases. He couldn’t follow that advice in this case, he said, because of his long relatioinship with Donnan.
“The verdict moved me, Tolley said. “I am so grateful.”
GLC, which stood for Global Liquidation Center, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011, as did Donnan. Investors wound up losing almost $23 million, prosecutors said.
GLC was founded by Crabtree, who was indicted along with Donnan. Crabtree avoided trial by pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud in the sale of a security. He faces up to five years in prison when sentenced in Athens on June 24.