A unanimous jury vote of not guilty exonerated Sherri Whitlock Hines, 42, of eight remaining counts of theft by taking and identity fraud. The jury of seven men and five women returned a verdict rather quickly, taking less than an hour to deliberate.
Villa Rica attorney Mac Pilgrim, who represented Hines, said the leaders of Community & Southern Bank, as well as police, made a “rush to judgment” when accusing his client.
“I think the jury saw through that and they saw fit to acquit,” Pilgrim said. “They saw that there were many other hands in this that were never investigated.”
Assistant District Attorney Vincent Faucette, who prosecuted for the state, said he thanked the jury for their service.
“I thought the facts and evidence were there, but that’s why there are juries,” the prosecutor said.
Faucette, who effectively caused a mistrial in the case last August by saying in front of the jury that Hines was also facing charges in Douglas County, said all of the victims named in the accusation had been compensated for their money.
But the bank had not been compensated because the dollar value fell below their insurance minimum, Faucette said.
The case in Douglas County is still pending.
Hines was accused on 12 counts of theft by taking and identity fraud, but those 12 counts were reduced to eight on Wednesday because of insufficient evidence.
Judge Jack Kirby granted Pilgrim’s motion for a directed verdict on those four counts, for which the state was not able to present sufficient evidence and victim testimony to prove Hines’ guilt, the judge said.
The defendant testified Wednesday morning, being questioned by Pilgrim and Faucette for almost two hours.
During direct examination by Pilgrim, Hines said that the account that was investigated originally — the one that Pilgrim said “started the engine” — was her grandmother’s loan package, which contained some “suspicious signatures,” according to the bank auditors.
Hines said that her grandmother’s loan was not in her “loan portfolio,” a collection of all the loans she managed, which she said had a combined total of loans of about $2 million.
“So the suspicious signatures that started this whole investigation weren’t in your portfolio and were not managed by you?” Pilgrim asked his client, to which she replied, “Yes.”
Throughout the trial, Pilgrim had maintained that his client was a “scapegoat” and that the state was accusing her of an “elaborate scheme of doing and covering, doing and covering.”
In his closing argument, the defense counsel called the investigation a “witch hunt.”
“Pay attention to the things you see, but also to the things you don’t see,” Pilgrim told the jury. “Pay attention to the holes in the bank’s processes. I think you will find there is reasonable doubt up and down the line.”
In his closing argument, Faucette said Pilgrim was alleging an “internal conspiracy at the bank.”
“He’s saying that some person or people were going after her,” Faucette said. “I don’t think that’s true.”
Jurors heard from more than a dozen witnesses during the three days of the trial, including five of the alleged victims named in the accusation and several former and current employees of Community & Southern Bank.
On Wednesday, the defense called three witnesses, including a former customer service representative who worked with Hines and the defendant herself.
Hines, a Villa Rica resident, was alleged to have stolen money from bank customers residing in Carroll, Paulding and Bartow counties between March 2010 and April 2011.
She was arrested on June 30, 2011, after employees of the bank discovered that she was “involved in some possible fraudulent withdrawals from customer accounts, loan creations and forgeries without their knowledge while she was employed at the bank,” according to the incident report filed by Det. Eddie Thompson of Villa Rica Police Department.
Hines was accused of taking funds from some bank customers’ accounts and depositing it into her Wells Fargo mortgage account.
The jury returned the not guilty verdict shortly before 4 p.m. Hines was joined by about 15 members of her friends and family, who all embraced after the verdict was read.