The decision by U.S. District Judge James Zagel came 21/2 months after a federal jury found Cellini, a key behind-the-scenes player in state government and politics for four decades, guilty in an extortion attempt. He has yet to be sentenced.
Zagel spoke for about 20 minutes from the bench, stridently defending juror Candy Chiles and reflecting on the history and daunting nature of the jury selection process.
In the end, the veteran judge made clear his belief that jurors make mistakes under questioning — either because of privacy concerns or the details seem irrelevant — and that this is not fatal to the task of trying to pick a fair jury.
Jury selection "is not intended to be a complete interrogation," he said. "…The questions are not precise. … They are not designed to elicit precise remarks."
Cellini's bid for a mistrial came after the Tribune reported that a juror withheld her felony criminal record on a written questionnaire and under questioning by Zagel during jury selection in his courtroom. The newspaper made the discovery after the verdict when Zagel released questionnaires filled out by jurors with their names and hometowns.
The Tribune had made a similar discovery during jury deliberations at the 2006 trial of former Gov. George Ryan, leading to the dismissal of two jurors with criminal histories. After that, court officials set up a procedure for criminal background checks to be done on prospective jurors in certain higher-profile trials, but those checks weren't performed in the Cellini trial.
Cellini, whose trial was the last from a federal probe that snared former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and several top advisers, was convicted in November of trying to extort a Blagojevich campaign contribution from a Hollywood producer who wanted to keep his lucrative investment business with the state.
No one answered a buzzer Tuesday night at Chiles' South Side apartment, but Zagel's decision was welcomed by jury foreman Willy Nast, who sat in the back row of Zagel's courtroom Tuesday listening to his ruling.
"I think everybody conducted themselves with honesty and integrity, especially during deliberations," said Nast, 27. "Everybody really made a commitment to take their time making these decisions. We were meticulous in the way that we reviewed the evidence, and everybody took it very seriously. Had anybody been a fly on that wall, they would agree that Mr. Cellini got a fair shake from us."
According to court records, Chiles pleaded guilty to a felony charge of crack-cocaine possession in February 2000 and was sentenced to 11/2 years of probation. In August 2008, she pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence without a driver's license, also a felony.
Cellini's attorneys had argued that as a convicted felon, Chiles was ineligible to serve on the jury and that her omissions indicated a bias against Cellini.
Legal experts agreed that the defense needed to prove that Chiles held such a bias against Cellini for the verdict to be set aside.
Chiles appeared at an evidentiary hearing earlier this month to explain the discrepancies, but the session quickly devolved into colorful tirades she aimed at Webb. "Don't make a fool out of me," she shouted at him at one point. "I sat here for five weeks and watched the way you work. I know what you're doing."
In strongly defending Chiles, Zagel noted in his ruling Tuesday that she came to the hearing without an attorney and was unprepared for Webb's "provoking questions" into her entire background, including her family and a history of evictions.
"Her buttons pushed … she did not have the sophistication or education … to accept the verbal brutality," the judge said. "… It was obvious Chiles had contempt for defense counsel. What Chiles did not have was contempt for the law."
Zagel also said Chiles' omissions during jury selection were "innocent error" and not "deliberate" and she therefore didn't show any bias.
The judge instead described Chiles as a woman who had many troubles in her life but appeared to have turned the corner for the better. Her failure to talk about the full extent of her criminal past was likely a reflection of her belief that the flaws of her past could simply stay in the past, he said.
Zagel also dismissed the defense's argument that she was unable serve on a jury as a convicted felon.
Nast, a project manager at a consulting company who lives in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, said he agreed with Zagel that jury selection is a daunting process.
"Going to sit in a courtroom and answer questions about your life in front of a room full of reporters is a very stressful experience for anyone, no matter what's in your past," he said. "It was stressful for me. I think it was stressful for everyone that was involved in it."