WASHINGTON — After sitting through a four-week trial, the jury in Sen. Ted Stevens' corruption case had a near meltdown Thursday following just two days of deliberations.
First, 11 jurors sought to boot the 12th from the panel after they complained that she'd been "rude, disrespectful and unreasonable" and had engaged in "violent outbursts." Then, after U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan had resolved the problem and jurors went home for the day, he had to call an emergency hearing at 6:30 p.m. because a second juror learned that a relative was so sick or near death that she might have to leave the trial and go to Texas.
There's little indication the problems on the jury have anything to do with the actual deliberations in the case, which involve determining whether Stevens is guilty of making false statements on his Senate financial-disclosure forms.
However, they could have an effect on the makeup of the jury and therefore, the trial's outcome. Judge Sullivan asked for lawyers on both sides of the case to offer up their preference by 9 a.m. Friday. They have two options if the juror with a sick relative can't return to the trial: bring in one of the alternate jurors who has already been dismissed or proceed with just 11 jurors.
It's unclear what preference either side has, because Stevens' lawyers asked for and received a private bench conference with Sullivan to discuss the matter. However, the 11-member jury option emerged after their second private bench conference, which was held over the objection of reporters attending the hearing.
The jury problems began mid-day Thursday, when jurors passed Sullivan four notes, including one about the combative juror in question. The juror, No. 9, works for the National Guard as a bookkeeper.
Out of the jury's presence, Sullivan read from the note the foreman had sent him, which began, "We the jury request that juror No. 9 be removed from the jury."
"She is being rude, disrespectful and unreasonable," the foreman wrote. "She has had violent outbursts with other jurors and that's not helping anyone. The jurors are getting off-course. She's not following the laws and rules that are being stipulated to in the main instructions."
The unusually needy jurors have taken center stage in a trial that's had its share of drama simply because of the defendant's renown. At one point, the trial threatened to fall apart entirely when Stevens' legal team filed a motion seeking a mistrial because prosecutors had failed to hand over evidence that could have helped the Alaska Republican's defense.
The jurors apparently worked out their problems by Thursday afternoon, although for the second day in a row they asked to go home a little early. They sent the judge a final note saying "we have given the evidence consideration and have exhausted ourselves for this day." In a bit of jury humor, they added that they were "unanimous in requesting a break" and fully intended to resume their deliberations Friday.
Sullivan said out of the jury's presence Thursday that he thought about asking the foreman to explain to the court what he meant by "violent" in the note, because the judge was concerned about the jurors' safety. Instead, he called the whole jury to the courtroom so that he could remind the members of their obligation to be civil to one another and foster an atmosphere of "mutual respect."
Once in the courtroom, the judge greeted the jurors, said he was happy to see them all smiling and told them that he was sympathetic to the amount of time they'd already devoted to the case. They sat through the testimony of 52 witnesses over nearly four weeks, capped by three days of Stevens on the stand.
"It's been a long trial," Sullivan said. "We started selection the 22nd of September. We've been together a long time."
He also told the jurors that he wished he could give them all black robes because "you folks are the judges of the facts. It's not my job. Your job is to consider all the evidence, all the testimony."
Sullivan told the lawyers after the jury left the courtroom that he'd watched the foreman carefully and thought that he and the other jurors had received his message to be courteous to one another.
"His response to my instruction was appropriate," Sullivan said. "He wasn't shaking his head as if to disagree. He didn't show any emotion one way or the other. It may well be that the court's response is the only response necessary. Only time will tell."
The jurors also had asked earlier for page 20 of Stevens' indictment, which inadvertently had been left out of the evidence and exhibits they were given for their deliberations.
They also wanted a better explanation of "liabilities" and the limit that the senator should have disclosed each year on his forms. The charges against Stevens accuse him of failing to report gifts as well as liabilities, which are debts or obligations that he might have incurred by accepting a gift and not reporting it. The judge declined to do so.
(Mauer reports for the Anchorage Daily News. Lisa Campo of the McClatchy-Tribune News Service contributed to this article.)