A jury found Puerto Rico's former governor not guilty Friday on all nine counts including conspiracy, money laundering and lying to the FBI, concluding his monthlong corruption trial.
Anibal Acevedo Vila, who could have faced 20 years in prison if convicted, was the first governor to be charged with a crime since the island became a semiautonomous U.S. commonwealth in 1952.
Acevedo made the sign of the cross as he heard the verdict and began to cry, as did former adviser Luisa Inclan, who was also cleared of similar charges.
Judge Paul Barbadoro faced both defendants after the verdict. "This case has ended. You are free to go," he said.
The acquittal is a major blow to the U.S. Attorney's office, which prosecuted the governor in an election year — likely contributing to his defeat in one of the most lopsided elections in Puerto Rican history.
U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said Friday that she respects but disagrees with the verdict. She also denied that evidence was weak.
"The circumstantial evidence allowed for inferences to be made that the jury did not understand as such, but we accept that," she said.
Jurors were not available Friday evening to explain how they reached their verdict.
Hundreds of Acevedo's supporters celebrated outside the courthouse, waving flags, singing, blowing whistles and chanting "Innocent!"
Squeezing his way through the crowd, the ex-governor clutched a large Puerto Rican flag and jumped atop an SUV.
"I hope Puerto Rico learns from this lesson," said Acevedo, who also professed to having learned from his own mistakes. "You defend the truth no matter what."
Lost bid for second term
Current Gov. Luis Fortuno issued a brief statement asking Puerto Ricans to respect and support the jury's verdict.
Authorities last year accused Acevedo and 12 associates of participating in an illegal scheme to pay off more than $500,000 in campaign debts.
One by one the associates began to plead guilty, leaving only Acevedo and Inclan to stand trial. One co-defendant agreed to testify against Acevedo in exchange for having charges against her dropped.
Prosecutors presented some 30 witnesses, while defense attorneys surprised the courtroom earlier this week when they rested their case without calling a single person to testify. Acevedo's lawyers urged the judge to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.
In November, Acevedo lost to Fortuno in his bid for a second term. A month later, Barbadoro dismissed 15 of 24 charges against Acevedo, ruling that U.S. federal prosecutors improperly interpreted election laws.
A grand jury had added new charges in August, indicting him on four counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.