By Abdon M. Pallasch
Reporters are off the hook in the effort to secure a new trial for convicted power broker William Cellini.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel dropped efforts Wednesday to compel reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune to produce notes of any interviews they conducted with a juror in Cellini's trial who concealed two felony convictions when she was filling out paperwork to serve on the jury.
Cellini still is on the hook for his conviction of trying to extort money from "Million Dollar Baby" Producer Tom Rosenberg so that Rosenberg's investment firm could get a share of the state Teacher Retirement System pension fund.
Juror Candy Chiles, who has convictions for drunk-driving and crack cocaine possession, was not in court Wednesday. Zagel said she had called his office Tuesday to say she was in the hospital and would not be able to attend.
Zagel suspended the hearing until she appears in court, possibly later this week.
Cellini attorney Dan Webb told Zagel he objected to even having a hearing. He said Zagel should skip the hearing and proceed directly to a new trial for Cellini.
"Under the law, you are not eligible to serve on a federal jury ... if you are convicted of a felony," Webb said. "Why would someone lie to get on a jury unless they have some type of bias? What I want to establish is that she knowingly and willingly lied on these questions."
Webb noted the irony that he and the government are now on the opposite sides of where they were in the trial of former Gov. George Ryan, who was also represented by Webb. In that case, prosecutors got a woman thrown off the jury because she concealed her arrest record.
After Cellini was found guilty, Tribune reporter Annie Sweeney wrote about her exchange with the juror in which Sweeney asked her about the felony convictions and the woman refused to discuss them. Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika also interviewed the juror but there was no discussion of the woman's arrest record.
Zagel ruled there would be no benefit in compelling either paper's reporters to appear in court or turn over notes.
"There's no reason to require them to appear," Zagel said, adding that any additional detail Webb might find in Sweeney's notebook about the interview, which she already wrote about, would be "trivial."
Zagel assured Webb that "having seen reporters' notebooks" there was likely little fodder to be found that would help Webb make a case.
Journalism watchdog groups expressed relief Wednesday that Zagel dropped, at least for now, efforts to compel reporters to turn over their notes.
"We are independent witnesses to the news and not arms of the court -- this is an action not only journalists should celebrate but anyone who cares about a free press," said Stephen Franklin, president of the Chicago Headline Club, the country's largest chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.