A federal judge on Wednesday called for an evidentiary hearing into whether Springfield power broker William Cellini deserves a new trial because a juror apparently lied about her criminal background during jury selection.
In a written decision, U.S. District Judge James Zagel said a hearing is needed to determine if the juror was showing any bias when she failed to disclose two felony convictions to the court.
But legal experts contacted by the Tribune said her testimony would be the only way to get to the bottom of the key question: Why did she lie?
"How else are you going to get an explanation?" said Ronald Allen, a professor at Northwestern University Law School.
Cellini, 77, a key behind-the-scenes player in the state capital for decades, was convicted this month in connection with the shakedown of a Hollywood producer in 2004. Prosecutors said Cellini conspired to squeeze a campaign contribution for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in order to protect his insider access in Springfield. The producer operated a firm that invested tens of millions of dollars for a state pension fund.
The jury deliberated a little more than two days before convicting Cellini on Nov. 1 of bribery and conspiracy to commit extortion. He was acquitted of two related counts.
Following the verdict, after Zagel released questionnaires filled out by jurors with their names and hometowns, the Tribune discovered the woman had omitted mention of her felony convictions on the questionnaire as well as during questioning by the judge during the jury selection.
The juror, 50, who lives on Chicago's South Side, has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the Tribune since the story broke Nov. 11.
In his four-page decision released Wednesday, Zagel quickly put off one key dispute between the prosecution and Cellini's lawyers — whether as a convicted felon the juror even had a right to sit on the jury.
Even if he agreed with prosecutors that the juror had her civil rights restored and had a right to be on the jury, Zagel said that would still leave the question of her failure to disclose her criminal background on her questionnaire and during jury selection.
"That scenario, too, points to further proceedings to cast light on the juror's reasons for non-disclosure," the judge wrote.
Zagel said court precedent puts the burden on the defense to prove the juror acted with bias by hiding her felony convictions.
That could be a problem if the juror says she was confused by the questions about her arrest record or too embarrassed to talk about her record in a crowded courtroom.
However, Cellini's lawyers could try to show through their questioning of the juror that her innocent explanations aren't credible. For instance, they could point to Zagel's questioning of the juror's answer on her questionnaire to whether she or a family member had ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. "A DUI," she wrote.
However, when Zagel directly questioned her about the answer during jury selection, she indicated she was referring to a relative, not herself.
In court papers, Cellini's lawyers have alleged that the juror showed bias in her published comments after the verdict. But prosecutors disputed that characterization and noted such statements would not be admissible in court.
Juror in Cellini trial may be questioned about not disclosing criminal past
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