WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Stevens had asked for a speedy trial in the hopes that he'd have an acquittal in hand by Election Day, but a personal emergency for one of his jurors all but ground the proceedings to a halt Friday morning.
Jury deliberations, already marked by turmoil, were put on hold Friday while the judge paused to determine how to handle a grieving juror who had to leave town to attend her father's funeral in California.
Even if she's available after her return, however, it's unlikely that deliberations will begin again until Tuesday or even Wednesday. Such uncertainty is likely to postpone a verdict in the Alaska Republican's corruption case until just days before he's on the ballot Nov. 4.
For the first time in his 40-year Senate career, Stevens, 84, faces a competitive re-election bid, against Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
Friday morning, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan told the jurors that "everyone needs a day off now and then" and sent them home for the day at 9:50 without telling them why their fellow juror was gone.
The jurors have cheered in the past when Sullivan let them go home early, but this time they didn't appear to be happy about the three-day weekend. The eight women and four men, who were about to begin their third day of deliberations, have been sitting in on the trial since jury selection began Sept. 22.
Although their short deliberations have been marked by theatrics, the jury problems appear to have little to do with the deliberations, which involve determining whether Stevens is guilty of making false statements on his Senate financial-disclosure forms. The senator is the highest-profile figure to be charged in a broad investigation into corruption in Alaska politics.
On Wednesday, the jurors sent the judge a note asking to go home early because they were stressed and needed a "minute of clarity." The next day, 11 of the jurors complained that the 12th was "rude, disrespectful and unreasonable" and had engaged in "violent outbursts." They sent out a note asking whether she could be replaced, although the judge appeared to defuse the situation by reminding everyone to be civil.
By Thursday evening, the jurors had left for the day all smiles. Within an hour, however, a juror reported her father's death and the judge held an emergency hearing.
Sullivan will have another hearing Sunday evening to see whether the grieving juror will be available to return. If she isn't, he'll consider bringing in an alternate juror or going forward with just 11.
Sullivan said he was disinclined to add an alternate juror because the jury then would have to start from scratch on deliberations, an option that the judge said would put the jurors in the same place they'd be if they didn't start the proceedings again until later in the week.
However, he did bring in one of the alternate jurors to ask her whether she'd be available if needed. Sullivan asked her whether she'd spoken to anyone about the case or had formed an opinion on it. She said she hadn't talked about it, then hesitated when Sullivan asked her whether she'd made up her mind yet.
"I paused because I wanted to think if I'd formed an opinion," the juror said, adding that she didn't think she had.
Sullivan also said he was reluctant to proceed with only 11 jurors, given the near-meltdown on the jury already. If the jury were to lose another juror it would have "major problems," Sullivan said. Federal juries are allowed to proceed with fewer than 12 jurors and frequently go on with just 11, but it's rare to have fewer.
Prosecutors said Friday that in the Stevens case, they'd prefer to proceed with the alternate juror. They wrote in a brief that "alternates exist for situations precisely like the present one," and they worried in court Friday that depending on one juror to go on with the trial seemed risky.
"This is a lot placed on this juror," said Nicholas Marsh, one of the prosecutors on the Justice Department team.
Stevens' lawyers argued Friday morning in favor of waiting to see whether the juror could return, rather than calling in an alternate or proceeding with 11. If necessary, they told the judge, they'd prefer to go on with just 11 jurors.
(Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News.)