NEWARK — The judge overseeing Sen. Robert Menendez’s corruption trial accused the defense of seeking a mistrial Monday, and asked jurors what they’ve heard about the case since one of their former colleagues spoke about it publicly last week.
Four of the jurors, who were instructed at the beginning of the trial not to read media coverage about the case or talk to friends and family about it, said they had heard something about the case since court broke on Thursday. Three alternate jurors also said they heard about the trial.
But that apparently didn’t trouble judge William Wall. After he spoke privately with each of the jurors who had said he or she heard about the case, Walls did not dismiss any of them. Instead, he went ahead with his original plan and instructed the jury to begin deliberations from scratch.
"You are now a new jury. You are disregard whatever you negotiated or deliberated on last week. You’re starting fresh," Walls said.
The courtroom kerfuffle came after a big burst of news coverage. On Thursday, a juror who had been dismissed so she could take a long-planned vacation spoke with the press, saying she believed Menendez is innocent and that she believes the jury will be hung.
The juror, Evelyn Arroyo Maultsby, told reporters that the jury on Wednesday had been leaning toward acquitting Menendez on the 17 bribery counts against him and convicting him of filing false reports about gifts from his co-defendant, Salomon Melgen. But she also indicated that she wanted to tell Judge William Walls that the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
Maultsby left a note for Judge William Walls, complaining that “I find it very unfair that after 9 weeks this jury refused to present a verdict that was reached on Wednesday,” according to an excerpt read aloud in court.
Defense attorneys cited media reports that Arroyo-Maultsby had wanted the jury to address the judge on Wednesday but that another juror or jurors had prevented her from doing so. Defense lawyers also raised Arroyo-Maultsby’s claim to the press that some jurors who didn’t agree with her wanted to wait her out, knowing she would be off the jury after Thursday.
Defense lawyers asked Walls to question jurors questions about what went on during deliberations.
“There is the potential that there was misconduct among the jurors in two different ways. First, she wanted to send a note to the court [on Wednesday] and was told she could not do so. That is misconduct,” Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell said. “The second is that she has said in the articles that she has been manipulated off the jury by people saying ‘Your vote doesn’t count and we’ll just wait you out until you leave.’ Now if that’s true, that’s misconduct.”
Walls rebuffed their requests, but he did include a new instruction to the jury.
“There is a claim made by the late Juror Number 8 (Arroyo-Maultsby) that her attempt to make communication with the court was thwarted or prevented,” Walls said. “Every juror has the right to communicate at any and all times with regard to deliberations. All you need to do is to step outside the door. The guards are there, and he’s on hand to take whatever message you want to give to me in writing.”
Walls said the obvious solution is what he already planned to do: Instruct the jurors to re-start negotiations now that an alternate juror has taken Arroyo-Maultsby’s place.
“Now, that she ends up being a partisan and being dissatisfied with the way her colleagues acted or did not act, is nothing I can do about for the simple reason she is gone,” Walls said.
Walls said defense lawyers wanted to make a big issue of the juror’s comments because she was on their side.
“It’s really interesting how you believe every word, every syllable that is uttered in an interview or implicit in a note. You know why? Because she’s on your side,” Walls said.
Then Walls, his voice rising, said “I’m not interested in whether you win. I’m interested in whether it’s done correctly. And I shall conduct myself that way.”
Walls said defense lawyers were gunning for him to declare a mistrial.
Lowell protested, saying that was “putting the cart before the horse.”
“That’s your way out,” Walls said. “Your way out of going with what’s the easy solution, that’s it. You have a new jury and you have a new deliberation.”