NEW YORK – A US jury acquitted a "thrilled" Peruvian former soccer boss at the FIFA corruption trial on Tuesday, clearing him to jet home while two convicted co-defendants await sentencing from behind bars.
The panel cleared 60-year-old Manuel Burga, a former head of Peru's soccer federation and ex-FIFA development committee member, on one count of racketeering conspiracy on the seventh day of deliberations in New York.
The jury returned the verdict following the Christmas holiday after convicting Jose Maria Marin, former head of Brazil's Football Confederation and Juan Angel Napout, former head of Paraguayan football on Friday. They were previously deadlocked on Burga.
The Peruvian was arrested in 2015, when the United States unveiled the largest graft scandal in world soccer, indicting 42 officials and marketing executives, as well as the sports company Traffic, with corruption crimes totaling more than $200 million.
But more than two and a half years later, a bribery trial opened in a Brooklyn federal court with only three defendants in the dock – one of whom now walks free.
While the trial exposed systemic corruption at the heart of the world's most popular sport, US federal prosecutors' case against Burga collapsed.
Prosecutors themselves conceded that he never received bribery money, despite contending he agreed to. Extradited to the United States from Peru in 2016, he is now due to be reunited with his family in Lima on Wednesday.
"I am returning to my country, I have lots to do there. I have no feelings of vengeance or revenge," Burga said as he left the federal court house in Brooklyn, in comments broadcast by Peruvian television.
"From now on, I am only looking ahead," he said.
Looking frail and emotional, he turned to his faith. "God enlightened the jury to deliver the verdict I have been hoping for for two years and 22 days."
Lawyer Bruce Udolf said his client was "thrilled to be able see his family after two years of this ordeal," thanking the jury for reaching "the right result."
"There was no evidence that he received any money at all. In fact the government didn't even contend that he had," he told AFP.
At trial, prosecutors accused Burga of intimidating a key witness, Alejandro Burzaco, by twice drawing a finger across his neck in a throat-slashing gesture while the Argentine – who himself plead guilty – testified.
Udolf said his client had scratched his neck but District Judge Pamela Chen thought otherwise and on November 15 restricted his phone and computer access.
The trial lifted the lid on the life of privilege, luxury and excess enjoyed by members of FIFA's executive committee – of personal chauffeurs, private jets and "presidential treatment," luxury hotels, meetings in idyllic resorts in the Bahamas or Mauritius, and even cruises on the Danube for wives, children and grandchildren.
The government amassed 30 million pages of evidence and said Marin, 85, and Napout, 59, were blinded by greed into accepting more than $17 million in bribes.
The formerly powerful pair, convicted of racketeering conspiracy and related charges, were taken into custody on Friday and face at least 10 years in prison.
They "have been brought to justice, like the others who have been convicted for corrupting a sport beloved across the world, and will face punishment for their criminal conduct," said acting US attorney Bridget Rohde on Tuesday.
"The guilty verdicts and the evidence at trial highlight the extent of the corruption and the continuing need for reform," she added.
There is currently no date for their sentencing and their lawyers have vowed to fight to absolve the pair.
Twenty-four of the 42 individuals indicted in May 2015 have cut deals in return for guilty pleas – two of whom have already been sentenced by Chen.
Another 15 remain in their own countries, including Brazilian football confederation president Marco Polo Del Nero, who was this month banned from soccer for 90 days.