HARD AGROUND - Wreck of the Exxon Valdez - March 24, 1989

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EXXON JURORS SAY THEY DID THE JOB RIGHT

By NATALIE PHILLIPS
Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 06/16/95
Day: Friday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

ANCHORAGE- The federal jurors who returned a $5.3 billion verdict against Exxon last fall told court officials this week that no one harassed them and that they followed court instructions and avoided news accounts about the trial.

Exxon alleges someone intimidated jurors during the trial and that some jurors might be guilty of misconduct. If either were true, there might be enough evidence for a mistrial, Exxon argues.

One juror told of a taxi driver giving her a hard time about finding Capt. Joseph Hazelwood reckless, but she brushed him off.

A second juror told of a friend warning that if he did the wrong thing, he could end up running the oil industry out of the state. But he ignored him.

And another juror told of finding three dead fish in her yard midway through the trial.

''I just took that with a grain of salt and kept going,'' said Margaret Johnson. ''It didn't change me.'' She didn't mention it to other jurors until weeks later.

In response to an Exxon motion, U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland agreed to subpoena and question the jurors behind the locked doors of his chambers. Ten of the 11 jurors were called in one by one for half-hour sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday.

''It was totally a wild goose chase,'' said Brian O'Neill, the attorney representing 10,000 fishermen, Natives and others in the suit against Exxon. ''They didn't get a thing out of this. Absolutely nothing, other than to show that these are probably the 11 most conscientious people you could ever pick for jury duty.''

At the close of the hearings, Holland said the next move is Exxon's. If oil company attorneys think they have enough information for a mistrial, they must file a motion.

Exxon officials weren't saying Thursday what's next.

''We are not going to speculate on what action, if any, will come about as a result of this,'' said Ed Burwell, an Exxon spokesman.

The two days of questioning produced some surprises.

One of the jurors made a reference to a holiday picnic where many of the jurors and a court security officer gathered. Exxon attorney Jim Sanders was interested in whether there were any discussions about the trial.

The jurors who were asked said no.

Juror Doug Graham said he was uncomfortable with the court security officer, whom he called ''nosy.'' Some of the jurors speculated ''whether he was a plant or something,'' Graham said. He said he joked with another juror that ''when this thing is over with, he'll be head of security of Exxon in Houston.''

Mostly the security guard was interested in how things were going with juror Rita Wilson, who more than once left the deliberating room in tears.

Graham said he tried to avoid the officer, but one morning the officer stopped him and asked if the jury was still having trouble with Wilson ''or something like that.'' The officer ''pulled his gun out, took a bullet out and said maybe if you put her out of her misery or something,'' Graham recalled.

The officer, Don Warrick, was subpoenaed and said he was outraged by the allegation.

''It was not me,'' Warrick told the court. ''I have never heard anything so absurd in my life.''

The Exxon jurors listened to 41/2 months of testimony about the 11 million-gallon spill before returning their final verdict on Sept. 17. Exxon vowed to fight the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In January, the Anchorage Daily News published a lengthy article about the jury proceedings.

Less than two weeks later, Exxon and Hazelwood filed motions seeking to question jurors about what appeared in the story. Exxon attorneys also asked that the records on the jury issue be sealed saying ''juror privacy and the interest of justice would be served by avoiding any further sensationalization of this subject matter.'' Holland agreed.

On Wednesday, Holland opened the records in response to motions filed by the Daily News challenging the secrecy. But the jurors had already been questioned.

Transcripts of the hearings show that the judge asked prepared questions and the attorneys were allowed limited follow-up questions. The Federal Rules of Evidence prohibited them from asking any questions about actual jury deliberations or whether any single juror was coerced into the verdict.

That disappointed Exxon, which had hoped to question juror Wilson about whether she felt badgered. Her husband, Jerry, had said in the Daily News article that she agreed to the verdict only because she was worn down by other jurors. In the weeks following the trial, she attempted suicide.

Holland did allow Exxon to ask jurors about: their newspaper reading, comments the jury foreman made about his past professions, jurors' learning of Hazelwood's drunken driving record and the dead fish Johnson found in her yard.

Exxon argued that someone was trying to threaten Johnson after the jury returned a partial verdict of $287 million for actual damages.

''It is clear that the dead fish were left to convey a threatening message,'' Exxon wrote in its motion. ''The juror was made aware, through a grotesque gesture, reminiscent of 'The Godfather,' that persons with an interest in the case knew that she was a juror, knew where she lived, and disapproved of the verdict.''

During this week's hearings, jurors told the court they didn't give the dead fish much thought or only vaguely remember Johnson mentioning it. And Jerry Wilson, who testified in place of his wife, said she found a couple of dead fish in their yard during the trial, too. He said they ''didn't think much about them at the time,'' nor did Rita Wilson mention it to other jurors.

In the Daily News article, the jurors said at times they gave in to temptation to listen to a newscast or read a newspaper story. At the hearings, all of the jurors said they did not read newspaper accounts of the trial, but at times they would glance at a headline or hear the beginning of a radio or television report.


Story Index:
Main | The Legal Battles
Overall: story 324 of 380 Previous Next
The Legal Battles story 65 of 87 Previous Next

   
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