A pile of paper slips was stacked in the middle of the long oak conference table. Each scrap of paper had a figure scribbled on it. One said "0." Another said "$20 billion." The others were in between.
The 11 jurors were stuck. For four days, they had sat in a locked room in the Anchorage federal courthouse debating how much Exxon and tanker captain Joseph Hazelwood should pay in punitive damages for the 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound.
Whenever one of them tried to discuss it, juror No. 9, Rita Wilson, put her hands over her ears and shook her head furiously.
"No, no, no!" her fellow jurors recalled her wailing. "I don't believe in punitive damages. They are immoral. Nobody asked me . . . Hazelwood has suffered enough. I don't want to talk about it."
Sometimes she bolted for the bathroom and locked the door behind her.
When the trial had begun five months earlier, the birch trees in front of the federal courthouse were just beginning to bud. The months slipped by and stole the jurors' summer -- a grandson's wedding, a 40-year class reunion, vacation plans. The marina at Big Lake that juror Bruce Dean had started to build went bust.
They listened to a parade of 151 witnesses and were given a mountain of reports, documents and other evidence -- much of it conflicting, technical and confusing.
Wilson wasn't the only frustrated juror. When they had to dig through waist-deep boxes of reports to calculate the losses claimed by commercial fishermen, Janette Garrison sat stubbornly for five days refusing to participate. She was furious.
"How are just average people supposed to figure out what these Ph.D.s can't even agree on?" she remembers thinking. Before they were finished, juror Nancy Provost was so sick with the flu she crawled under the conference table to sleep while the others worked.
Now it was September and the birch leaves were yellowing with winter's chill. The jury had unraveled the puzzle of how the Exxon Valdez ended up on Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989. They had become fluent in the languages of tanker navigation, Coast Guard regulations and commercial fishing.
But now they were struggling with the biggest question of all: What would it take, if anything, to punish Exxon and deter the company from ever making the same mistake again?
There was no mathematical formula to help them. The jurors weren't allowed to compare this case to any other before it. Punitive damages are simply a gut feeling. More than 14,000 commercial fishermen, Natives, business owners and landowners claiming damage from the spill were waiting, along with thousands of Exxon shareholders and hundreds of lawyers around the country hired by both sides to try the case.
For two weeks the 11 jurors argued. They scrutinized Exxon's financial records, they compromised and they often went home to sleepless nights. Finally, on Sept. 16, all the slips of paper in the center of the table read the same: $5 billion.
Thirty minutes later, the jury marched into the courtroom and revealed their decision. It was the second largest jury verdict in American history and the largest punitive award ever levied against a corporation. The verdict drew instant praise and scorn from around the world.
The jurors quietly snuck out a back door of the courthouse to reclaim their lives as secretaries, clerks, janitors and parents.
But their lives were changed. By the time they reached the end of the trial, the stress and magnitude of their work had caught up with them. The jury room had become a pressure cooker. Friendships had grown and withered.
One juror had been excused because of ulcers. At least two visited their doctors for stress.
And in the weeks that followed the verdict, one juror disappeared from home. Upset and haunted by regrets, the juror checked into a local motel and, according to her husband and police, tried to commit suicide.