A post-trial hearing in William Cellini's case came to an abrupt halt this afternoon when the juror accused of misleading the court about her criminal past exploded at a defense lawyer.
"You're trying to see if I'm a liar so you can get him off?" juror Candy Chiles, a 50-year-old daycare provider, asked as her voice choked with emotion. "Leave me alone! Leave me alone!"
After the judge called an immediate recess, Chiles quickly walked out of the courtroom, shaking her head and muttering about the defense team.
It was her third blowup at Cellini’s attorney, Dan Webb, during his pointed, hour-long examination, which centered on whether she knew she was being untruthful when she told the court she had not been arrested or convicted of a crime. In fact, she has two felony convictions and another arrest on her record.
"Do not do me like this. Do not do me like this," she said. "I am not a criminal. I didn't steal anything ... damn you."
U.S. District Judge James Zagel -- who did not order background checks on potential jurors before the high-profile trial -- called the hearing today to determine if Chiles' equivocations denied Cellini a fair trial.
Chiles, who said she was hoping not be selected for jury duty, said that she didn’t reveal a 2000 drug conviction because she had put the incident behind her.
"It's in my past. I never mention it at all, that foolishness in my life," she said.
Chiles also did not tell the court about a felony DUI conviction in 2008 and an assault arrest in 1994. She initially told the judge that she didn't know why she didn't disclose those cases but later said that she was confused and nervous about jury selection.
Zagel said Chiles hadn’t been truthful in her answers to the court during jury selection.
"I think it's pretty clear ... you did not give complete answers to these questions,” the judge said. “In a way, you did not follow the instructions of the court to answer truthfully.”
But lying on a jury questionnaire is not enough to overturn a conviction.
The defense must prove that the juror had bias or prejudice toward the judicial process.
As she answered questions from the jury box in Zagel’s courtroom, Chiles insisted she had been fair to Cellini and had followed all other jury instructions.
Cellini’s lawyers are seeking a new trial based in part on revelations in a Nov. 11 Tribune story that Chiles failed to disclose that she had felony convictions for crack possession in 2000 and aggravated driving under the influence in 2008.
Cellini, whose high-profile trial was the last from a federal probe that snared former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and several top advisers, was convicted in November of attempting to extort a Hollywood producer who wanted to keep his lucrative business with the state.
Wearing all black and her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, Chiles asked Zagel if she needed a lawyer before questioning began. He said that she had to make her own decision, but she may have to pay for one herself if she wanted legal counsel.
Chiles, who is being treated for a heart condition, told Zagel that she had taken a nitroglycerin pill before entering the courtroom because she was feeling a tightness in her chest.
"Is Mr. Webb going to ask questions?" she asked in reference to Cellini’s attorney. "I feel uncomfortable about that."
Her uneasiness showed almost immediately during Webb's examination as Chiles refused to make eye contact with him and often shook her head or sighed during his questioning.
Webb, a former U.S. Attorney who is often considered among the top lawyers in the country, was accused by Zagel of "sticking a needle" in Chiles and provoking her reactions with an accusatory tone.
Zagel said the tough grilling and Chiles' fiery responses were making it difficult for him to discern the truth. He ordered Webb to submit any additional questions in writing so the court could decide whether they should be asked.
"This is an issue in which you may very well prevail," Zagel said. "But you're not helping yourself and you're not helping anyone."
The defense argues that Chiles compromised the verdict by concealing her criminal history and potential bias during jury selection. In an effort to bolster their position, Cellini’s lawyers sought access to notes of Tribune reporter Annie Sweeney from a brief interview with Chiles.
But Zagel ruled last month that Sweeney did not have to surrender her notebook because Chiles had little to say during the interview.
In a published account of her Nov. 10 interview with Chiles, Sweeney described a brief encounter in which Chiles confirmed she was a juror but declined to discuss her criminal background.
The Tribune discovered Chiles’ criminal history while doing a routine background check after Zagel released questionnaires filled out by the jurors a week after the verdict.
Legal experts have said the controversy over the juror’s criminal past could have been avoided if the court had performed background checks before jury selection.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun