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


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Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 05/06/94
Day: Friday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

ANCHORAGE- Potential juror No. 4 had been on the stand for nearly 15 minutes, talking about being an unemployed miner, about workers who drink on the job, and how he helped clean up after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Then it was time for James Neal Exxon's attorney and one of the nation's foremost defense lawyers to ask questions. The Tennessee lawyer wanted to know why No. 4 wrote "BAD" and circled it next to scratched-out answers on a juror form where inquires if he ever worked for Exxon, ARCO or a handful of state and federal regulatory agencies.

The juror leaned into the microphone.

"It's my initials," he said.

The silent courtroom erupted in laughter. Even stoic U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland cracked a smiled.

So No. 4 the miner, who has a walrus-like mustache became one of 12 jurors to sit in judgment of Exxon when the final panel was selected Thursday. The nine women and three men include a gold miner, a couple of school custodians, an elementary school secretary, a bookkeeper, a court clerk, a homemaker, an unemployed counselor, a retired factory worker and a McDonald's employee.

Most of the jurors are in their 40s or older. None are Native, two are black, the rest white. There are no alternate jurors in the case.

They will decide if the oil giant should have to pay fishermen, business owners, landowners and Natives up to $15 billion to compensate for the 11 million gallons of oil spilled in Prince William Sound.

The trial will get underway Monday with opening statements. Three to four months of testimony will follow.

The final 12 were selected from a pool of 105 jurors who filled out a 20- page questionnaire. One by one they came into the court room until there were 24 approved potential jurors. Then each side got to eliminate six. It was an unusual jury selection process that both sides had agreed to before the trial started.

In final cuts, the plaintiffs suing Exxon had ruled out an insurance broker who favored limiting damages in lawsuits, a construction superintendent who had trouble with stiff environmental regulations, an engineer who recently graduated from law school, and an aircraft mechanic and a bookstore clerk, both whom had doubts about awarding large punitive damages.

Exxon attorneys bumped a humor writer, a nurse with fishermen friends, a Kodiak bank teller with opinions about alcoholism, a stock-car enthusiast who thinks oil tankers could be made safer, and a bookkeeper who had already formed an opinion about the grounded tanker vessel's captain.

Throughout the three-day proceedings, dozen of attorneys sat in the audience keeping notes on each of the potential jurors. Once the 24 potential jurors were picked, attorneys had one hour to review their lists before making the final cuts.

While picking a jury is not an exact science, "it's real important," said John Suddock, an Anchorage trial lawyer not involved with the case. "Cases can be won or lost on jury selection. But it's voodoo."

Suddock said that for world-class cases like this trial, typically both sides would have done polling to come up with demographics on favorable jurors. Sometimes they hire a body language consultant to sit in the courtroom.

Attorneys on both sides decline to say what steps they took in preparing for jury selection. But they ended up with a jury made up of mostly blue- collar or clerical workers.

Suddock said it appears both sides "sanded off the rough edges."

"A lot of intelligent, strong-minded people would scare either side," he said. "What you are left with is the kind of people who are not out there on the record with a lot of opinions."

While the tension in the courtroom was apparent, there were still some laughs.

Juror No. 4, the gold miner, got another chuckle when he was asked what he liked about his profession.

"I like to blow stuff up," he said very matter-of-factly.

When juror No. 5, a baker, took the stand, he answered questions about family and friends. Then, Michael Chalos, a New York attorney working with the defense, glanced at his list of questions and asked the baker if he knew anyone who lives a "subsistence lifestyle."

No. 5 answered, "What do you mean?"

Chalos froze.

"I don't know," he said with a laugh. He turned to the table full of Exxon attorneys and asked, "Who is our subsistence man?" The New York and Los Angeles attorneys exchanged puzzled looks.

Then a voice from above said, "I am."

It was Holland, who has presided over the state's most controversial subsistence cases.

When juror No. 57, a gas station attendant from Cantwell, took the stand he told the attorneys he moved to Alaska in the summer of 1989 to work on a fish processor in Bristol Bay. He said he had never heard of the 1989 spill until just a couple a months ago. He was dismissed because he is needed at the family business.

No. 59 explained that he worked as an engineer for 24 years before going to law school. He said he is currently taking a refresher course to prepare for the Alaska bar exam.

"I'm on an Obermeyer scholarship," said Maloney, in reference to a well- known Anchorage man who has taken the state bar exam 17 times.

No. 29 told the attorneys she moved to Alaska two years ago to live with one of her daughters and her two children. One attorney, expecting to hear about Alaska's beauty and natural resources, asked why.

"It was my choice to live with six grandchildren or two grandchildren," she said curtly. She was dismissed because her daughter works for a law firm involved in the case.

On her way out the door, she said, "This does not make me unhappy."

Story Index:
Main | The Legal Battles
Overall: story 289 of 380 Previous Next
The Legal Battles story 43 of 87 Previous Next

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