Cellini goes fishing | Bleader

Cellini goes fishing


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This is all on Judge James Zagel. His court didn't properly vet the jurors in the trial of power broker William Cellini, and after he was convicted the Tribune reported that one of the jurors had hidden two felony convictions—for illegal possession and for driving drunk without a license.

Naturally, Cellini's lawyers asked for a mistrial. And Zagel said, not so fast. It's not enough that she hid her record. To argue that the verdict's tainted, you need to show that she may have been harboring a bias against your client.

To show that, the lawyers want to be able to look everywhere—including in the notes of Tribune reporter Annie Sweeney, who had gone out to the juror's house to ask her questions about her convictions.

The Seventh Judicial Circuit has taken a narrow view of the rights of reporters. But at least they've been able to protect their work product—such as Sweeney's notes. Around the Reader, the principle that work product is off-limits is known as the Andich Doctrine, after our libel attorney who successfully argued it in federal court in a 2004 lawsuit.

But what's Zagel to do? If he cuts Cellini loose because of the wayward juror, he's convicting his own court of incompetence. If he doesn't, but then the appellate court does, his superiors are convicting him. Better to give Cellini license to search absolutely everywhere for signs of bias and pray his lawyers don't find any.

On Monday Zagel ordered the Tribune to turn over Sweeney's notes. On Tuesday the Tribune posted online Sweeney's account of her visit to the juror's home. Sweeney made it clear her notes, such as they were, contained nothing of value.

She said she had nothing to say and told me to leave. She then made one brief remark that was not in direct response to a question. She said something about they should have known. I am not sure those were her exact words and I did not understand what she meant. I didn’t have an opportunity to ask her to explain it.

At some point I also asked her about her jury questionnaire in which she revealed she had a criminal history in her family but failed to put in the details.

She did not answer my questions and kept asking me to leave, so that’s what I did. The brief conversation ended before I could get a meaningful statement from her and I went to my car and wrote down my recollections of her remarks. They were not verbatim and not in perfect chronological order.

I went there to get her side of the story. But I never got it.

And editor Gerould Kern posted a statement. "We are disappointed by Judge Zagel's ruling, and we now are considering our options," Kern said.

Options? I suppose the Tribune could decide to rise above principle as a matter of principle. It could say it's handing over the notes to serve the greater good—the cleanup of Illinois the Tribune has been championing, and also the dignity of the federal judiciary. As for Sweeney's notes, they're so sketchy and unreliable there's really nothing to shield.

But I think the Tribune has gotta do what it's gotta do. It's a newspaper. Its role is to say no to Zagel's order, and appeal it.

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