By Natasha Korecki
Federal Courts Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org
A federal judge has ruled that a juror's failure to disclose felony convictions before being picked to serve in the trial of downstate power broker William Cellini is unlikely to warrant an automatic mistrial.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel said in a ruling today that the revelation alone that a female juror was a felon does not automatically throw out the jury's verdict.
The matter, though, warrants a hearing, he said, saying there remains a question over why the juror didn't disclose her background. Still, he said it would likely be up to the defense to prove the juror held "actual bias," by failing to do so. Zagel set a Dec. 1 court date to discuss the matter further.
Zagel said the situation boils down to one pertinent question: "when a felon slips through the juror screening process does that felon's service on the jury lead to automatic mistrial? Every federal court of appeal that has addressed this issue has answered 'no,'" Zagel writes.
"It is the defendant's burden to cast sufficient doubt on the juror's impartiality," Zagel wrote. "If ... a juror offers a bias-free explanation which the courts find credible--such as confusion or embarrassment about admitting to felony convictions before a large audience in open court - then bias cannot be presumed."
It's up to the discretion of individual judges to run background checks within the northern district of Illinois. In most cases, checks are not run. They were run in the case of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In that case, there was a special pool impaneled and potential jurors knew ahead of time that they would be called for the ex-governor's case. In Cellini's case, the jurors were part of a larger pool brought to the courthouse and could have been called to serve in any of a number of trials starting that day, court officials said.
Just two federal courthouses in the country routinely run background checks of jurors, U.S. District Court Clerk Michael Dobbins said. Court officials say there are stumbling blocks to running checks in every case and they include cost and time of running the checks on jury pools, risk of getting it wrong and accidentally excluding the wrong potential juror of a crime as well as disenfranchising potential jurors who are called to serve by threatening to publicly expose old crimes. The court also looks to find parties not involved in the case to securely run the checks, such as the U.S. Probation Office or Pretrial Services. However, juror matters are not part of the mission for either agency and each is facing budget cutbacks.