NASSAU (Reuters) - A Bahamian lawmaker who caused a judge to order the retrial of two people accused of trying to extort $25 million from actor John Travolta was just repeating a “rumor” when he prematurely announced an acquittal verdict, his lawyer said on Thursday.
Supreme Court Senior Justice Anita Allen ordered a retrial late on Wednesday after the politician, Picewell Forbes, announced in a live TV and radio broadcast at a party convention that the accused had been cleared. But he did so before the jury in the five-week-old high-profile trial had formally issued any verdict.
Pleasant Bridgewater, a former member of the Bahamian Senate, and ambulance driver Tarino Lightbourne had been accused of attempting to extort $25 million from Travolta following the death of his son, Jett, from a seizure disorder in January 2009 during a family vacation in the Bahamas.
The two accused were alleged to have threatened to pass to the media a document, signed by Travolta, which released Lightbourne and his colleagues from any liability for Jett’s death after the actor decided to attempt to fly his son to Florida, rather than have him taken to hospital in Freeport.
Forbes, who caused wild jubilation among supporters of his Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) late on Wednesday when he announced the acquittal of Bridgewater, also a PLP member, was due to appear before Justice Allen on Friday to explain his action. She declared a mistrial and ordered the case re-heard as a direct result of his announcement.
Forbes’ attorney, Anthony McKinney, told a local radio show that Forbes had merely repeated “a rumor” he had heard on the party convention floor that Bridgewater had been cleared. He said the politician had acted on the spur of the moment without verifying the accuracy of the information.
Forbes would appear before the judge, who has not yet set a date for the retrial, to explain why should not be held in contempt of court for his public outburst. Allen said she believed someone in the jury had leaked the verdict.
Representatives of Travolta said the Hollywood actor was “disappointed” in the mistrial outcome, which was an embarrassment for the Bahamanian authorities handling the case. The extortion trial in the beach-fringed Atlantic tourism destination attracted intense media interest.
The Progressive Liberal Party issued a statement apologizing for Forbes’s outburst, saying his announcement of an acquittal was “incorrect”.
“This was not intended to interfere with the administration of justice,” the PLP said.
During the trial that opened last month in Nassau, Travolta had testified how he tried frantically to save his son by performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Walsh