FORT WORTH - A 46-year-old Azle woman was found guilty on Thursday of stealing and misusing a mentally handicapped man's life savings.
A jury of eight women and four men deliberated about five hours on Thursday before convicting Cynthia Sue Hardee of one count of theft of property, stemming from allegations that she stole more than $20,000 but less than $100,000 from Johnny Bryant.
The panel also convicted Hardee of a second count of misapplication of fiduciary property, meaning she used Bryant's money in a way that did not benefit him.
The sentencing phase of the trial begins on Friday.
During the weeklong trial in state district Judge Mollee Westfall's court, prosecutors Joe Shannon and Tonya Harlan portrayed Bryant, 58, as a mentally defective man who cannot read, write or manage his finances. But, they said, Bryant could work and, for more than three decades, he stocked groceries at several stores, netting more than $150,000 in his profit-sharing account.
The prosecutors portrayed Hardee as a thief and a liar who befriended Bryant then took advantage of him, spending more than $75,000 of his retirement money on personal items, including vehicles, guitars, a big screen television, dog grooming, hair cuts, and eye exams, among other things.
Hardee, meanwhile, vehemently maintained her innocence, telling the jury Bryant willing gave her access to his money because they were going to go into business together and that she didn't spend a penny without his approval.
During his closing argument on Thursday, Hardee's defense attorney, Danny Burns, told jurors that Hardee is neither a thief nor a mastermind criminal. He characterized her as woman who also has mental problems and wasn't very smart.
He told jurors that Bryant was the one who talked his client into going business together. They spent much of the money on business ideas -- including a resale shop, leather business, and lawn mowing service -- but they all fell through, he said.
"These are two people who should have never gone into business together but they had the right to try," Burns said.
Burns acknowledged that his client spent Bryant's money for her personal use, but reiterated that Bryant authorized every transaction.
He told the jury that Bryant is not as incompetent as prosecutors portrayed, pointing out that Bryant took entrepreneur classes, worked, married and divorced twice, and fathered three children.
Burns argued that Bryant understood what was going on with his money and criticized the prosecution for not calling Bryant to testify. Burns also suggested that this case should have been handled in civil court - not criminal.
"This is a civil suit that is being prosecuted as a criminal case because they want you to feel sorry for Johnny," Burns said. "... She is innocent. She is more than not guilty, she is innocent of this charge."
During his final summation, prosecutor Shannon fired back, telling jurors that Hardee is not "dumb." He pointed out that Hardee used to work up and down car lots on Jacksboro highway, handling "title work" for the purchase of vehicles.
"This woman ain't no dummy," Shannon said.
As for Bryant, Shannon pointed out that the defense had every right to subpoena him and call him if they wanted to. Shannon said he was not going to put Bryant through the stress of a trial after all he had been through already.
"If you come back with a 'not guilty' because Johnny Bryant wasn't here, then I'm OK with that," Shannon said. "I wasn't going to drag him up here. I would rather Cynthia be found 'not guilty' than drag Johnny through this mess."
Shannon urged jurors not to buy Hardee's story about not intending to steal or misapply Bryant's money. Within days of obtaining access to it, she had written an $11,000 check to her church, purchased a jeep, and paid her credit card and optometrist bills.
"Cynthia Hardee took everything Johnny Bryant had saved for 40 years," Shannon said. "If we don't protect the weakest of our system, why do we have a justice system?