Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cellini Attorney Wants Conviction Tossed Because Juror Lied About Criminal Past

U.S. District Judge James Zagel closely guarded the release of any information to the media about jurors who served during the corruption trial of Illinois power broker William Cellini. An investigation of one of the jurors by the Chicago Tribune uncovered evidence the juror had lied about her criminal past. That discovery has prompted Cellini's lawyers to take steps to have his conviction on two of four felony charges tossed by the district court judge. From the Tribune:
Cook County court records show that a woman with the same name, age and address as the juror pleaded guilty to a felony charge of crack-cocaine possession in February 2000 and was sentenced to 1 1/2 years of probation. In August 2008, she pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence without a driver's license, also a felony, and was sentenced to probation and time served — 44 days in jail, according to the records.
The juror never disclosed she had a conviction on a questionnaire filled out by jurors or under questioning by the judge in the courtroom during jury selection early last month, court officials acknowledged Thursday night after the Tribune came forward with the information.
Cellini's lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, told the Tribune he was shocked by the discovery. "I consider this very important information that I was not aware of," Webb said. "I don't know the facts here, but based on what the Tribune has reported to me, we are looking into the matter to determine if we have a basis to file a motion for a mistrial because a juror may have been allowed to serve on this jury who was legally disqualified from jury service."  The Tribune says Judge Zagel denied requests by reporters to obtain the questionnaires completed by jurors, and it was unclear whether he had conducted background checks on the jurors, something the Tribune says other federal judges in Chicago often do in high profile cases.
The Tribune's initial report earlier today indicated that federal law generally disqualifies convicted felons from serving as jurors. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald took strong exception to that assertion and issued the following statement as applied to persons whose "civil rights have been restored":
An article in today’s Chicago Tribune states that ‘Federal law generally disqualifies felons from serving on juries.’ This statement is off the mark. Federal law disqualifies persons who have been convicted of felonies from serving on juries only so long as their ‘civil rights have not been restored.’ Under Illinois law, civil rights are automatically restored upon the ‘completion of any sentence of imprisonment or upon discharge from probation, conditional discharge or periodic imprisonment.’ Thus, a person who has completed his or her sentence on a felony conviction is not disqualified from serving on a federal jury.
We decline to comment on facts specific to the Cellini case because it is appropriate to reserve our comments for the courtroom on matters that could be the subject of litigation. In general, however, federal law appropriately provides great respect for a jury’s verdict, and holds that it should not be lightly disturbed. 
I smell a rat and think the Tribune is working over time to keep Cellini out of prison. The Sun-Times (to have a competing newspaper is golden) is tamping down the Tribune's enthusiasm for springing loose the man who has operated as the mob boss of Illinois politics for decades.
While Cellini’s lawyer said Friday he would move to have the verdict thrown out and a mistrial declared, the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a statement that it’s not that cut and dried.
Meanwhile, experts say that felonies do no automatically disqualify jurors from serving and that even if a judge finds that the juror lied about criminal convictions, the appeals courts have a long reputation for keeping jury verdict’s intact.
Contradicting the earlier Tribune report, the Sun-Times reports that the juror in question actually disclosed on the questionnaire the fact that she had a prior conviction at least for the DUI. The discrepancy turns on what she told Judge Zagel during voire dire that failed to honestly describe her prior convictions, instead, suggesting they concerned a relative and not her.
Zagel: “You were asked the question, ‘Have you or a family member ever been arrested? And you gave an answer. Does that refer to you or to someone else?”
Juror: “Someone else.”
Zagel: “Okay. A relative of yours?”
Juror: “Yes.” 
The juror went on to say the person was convicted and treated fairly. According to court records, the woman had a felony drug offense and was sentenced to probation in 1999. In 2008, she was convicted of felony aggravated DUI and not having a valid ID and again was sentenced to probation. 
The Sun-Times cites legal experts for the notion that it will be very difficult to overturn the conviction based on the false statements the juror in question made to Judge Zagel:
Former prosecutor Phil Turner said he’s seen “unbelievable things” revealed about jurors after conviction, including that a juror had gone to school with a prosecutor, or considered information they’re not supposed to consider — and the conviction stays.
“Unfortunately, the way the law is, especially in the 7th Circuit, it doesn’t give the defendant any relief. The courts go to great lengths to sustain jury verdicts,” Turner, a defense lawyer, said.
“It has to be something extremely, extremely severe. Even if the government withholds exculpatory evidence … The court says ‘well, OK, this was wrong, but does this make a difference?’”
Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer said the juror lying goes against the whole concept of jury voire dire.
“Voire dire means speak the truth,” Cramer said. “It makes it very hard to select a jury if someone’s lying.” But Cramer said it’s likely an uphill battle for Cellini, even if the juror did lie.
“If the remedy here is that the juror gets in trouble, that doesn’t do the defendant much good,” Cramer said. “You now have this issue that unfortunately wouldn’t exist and could have been avoided, if the court had run a background check.”
The Sun-Times also clears up the question on whether Judge Zagel had the backgrounds of the jurors checked. He did not, unlike the case of the trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich over which he also presided. It's surprising that he didn't conduct background investigations for the Cellini trial. Blagojevich may have been a much higher profile defendant, but Cellini wielded far more power in Illinois as many political insiders will attest.

1 comment:

Marycatherine Barton said...

Perhaps Judge Zagel was more determined that Blago be convicted than he was Cellini, what with the former having 'offended' the big banksters. Perhaps