The 11 federal jurors who returned a $5.2 billion verdict against Exxon last fall were questioned under subpoena behind closed courtroom doors Tuesday and Wednesday about whether anyone outside the deliberating room tried to influence their decision.
Besides the public's being locked out of the proceedings, reams of court documents on the issue were sealed. But late Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Russel Holland ordered the records opened based on motions filed by the Anchorage Daily News.
At an emergency hearing on the closed proceedings, Holland described them as ''information gathering sessions'' that sometimes delved into the personal lives of jurors.
''The integrity of the judicial process is involved,'' he added. ''There's a great deal at stake.''
Only a couple of the unsealed documents were available before the courthouse closed, however, including a transcript from Tuesday's proceedings.
The transcript showed that the jurors were summoned one by one in half-hour intervals all day Tuesday. Jurors were told they were going to be asked questions about jury conduct and ''whether outside influences did or did not affect your deliberations.''
Reading from a sheet of more than 40 potential questions, Holland addressed each juror while Exxon attorney Jim Sanders and the plaintiffs' attorney Brian O'Neill listened. The attorneys were allowed some follow-up questions.
Jurors were asked if they read newspaper accounts or listened to radio or television reports about the trial. They were asked if they discussed the case with other jurors outside the deliberating room. The judge wanted to know if anyone ever approached them outside the courtroom about the case.
Some were asked about a cookout many of the jurors attended midway through the trial. At least one court bailiff also attended. They also were asked about the jury foreman's comments that he once owned an oil tanker and had experience in the fishing business.
The Exxon trial stretched from May to September last year. In the end, the jury awarded 10,000 fishermen, Natives and others $5.2 billion in actual and punitive damages as compensation for the 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill. Since the Sept. 17 verdict, Exxon has filed many motions challenging aspects of it. The corporation vows to fight it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although Holland upheld the verdict with a ruling in late January, both sides still are waiting for him to enter what is known as a ''54B judgment.'' That clears the way for an appeal to be filed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and marks the point when interest on the $5.2 billion starts adding up.
In the months after the jury verdict, the magazine ''American Lawyer'' and the Anchorage Daily News both published stories about the jury verdict and deliberations. The Anchorage Daily News' story, which appeared Jan. 22, also talked about the hardships of jury service, personality clashes and how diligent the jury was in its work.
Two weeks after the story appeared, Exxon filed a number of motions, including one that would require sealing all proceedings related to their motions. Holland agreed and on Feb. 7 ordered all related proceedings and documents sealed.
On Wednesday, Holland confirmed the original motions were the result of ''interaction between the jurors and the media,'' but he pointed out that there was nothing inappropriate about that. He explained that Exxon had raised so many questions about the jury proceedings, he decided it was necessary to call them in for questioning.
He said he didn't want anyone talking to jurors and influencing their memories before he had a chance to question them.
Since February, the voluminous Exxon case has grown even thicker with the sealed motions, courtroom minutes and judge's orders.
Tuesday's federal court calendar did not show that Holland was conducting closed hearings. However, some of the jurors were seen going to and leaving the courthouse Tuesday and courthouse security confirmed closed hearings were under way.
That prompted the Anchorage Daily News to file a motion for the emergency hearing, which was held Wednesday morning.
Additional documents are expected to be available today.