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Juror dismissed in Bell, Calif., corruption case
Thursday - 2/28/2013, 10:20pm EST
AP Special Correspondent
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A weeping juror was dismissed for misconduct Thursday during deliberations in the public corruption trial of six former officials charged stealing from the suburban city of Bell.
The elderly woman admitted she looked up information online and had her daughter research what would constitute coercion by other jurors. Her dismissal came just days after she asked to be bumped from the panel because other jurors were harassing her.
An alternate juror was later chosen, and Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy ordered the panel to start anew as if previous deliberations had never occurred. They retired for the day after about 2 1/2 hours and were to resume talks Friday.
The former mayor and five city council members are on trial on charges of inflating part-time salaries that should have been closer to $8,000 a year to nearly $100,000. Prosecutors claimed the officials boosted their pay by serving on boards that hardly ever met and nearly bankrupted the tiny Los Angeles surburb.
The defendants said they earned the pay by working long hours and they blamed City Manager Robert Rizzo for the city's plight.
The jury, which has about 100 verdict forms to fill out, had been in its fifth day of deliberations after a three-week trial.
Deliberations were troubled from the outset when the woman identified only as juror No. 3 asked to be dismissed Monday. The judge asked her to return to deliberations and try to get along with the others.
On Thursday, the jury sent a note to the judge saying they were at an impasse and could not reach verdicts. Then, one juror sent a subsequent note reporting that juror No. 3 told panelists she had called her personal attorney to seek information on what to do about being coerced by other jurors.
The judge summoned defendants and lawyers to her courtroom and asked the juror to explain her actions. The woman, who was verging on tears, said she never actually called a lawyer.
"I gave them the attorney's name so they would leave me alone," she said.
But she said she had asked her adult daughter to look up the definition of coercion on her computer. She told the others that she had the definition but didn't read it to them.
The judge asked why she ignored admonitions not to talk to anyone about the case. She said she needed someone to talk to "about the abuse I was suffering from the other jurors."
She said the daughter told her to be patient and everything would be fine.
She added that she also did research on a website of the California Law Library to find out how long she had to stay "when I had made my decision."
At one point, she buried her face in her hands and began to cry.
"Am I in trouble for this?" she asked.
Most of the attorneys and the prosecutor agreed that the juror had to be replaced.
"I believe it is plain that she was engaged in juror misconduct," said Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller. "How much she tainted other jurors is not clear. I've never seen it so well documented."
The judge told the juror she was being dismissed.
"You're not in trouble," she told her. "There's no reason to be upset. That's why we have alternates."
The juror was sobbing as she was escorted out of the courtroom.
During the trial, the prosecution said the defendants convinced themselves they were entitled to nearly six-figure salaries for part-time positions governing the tiny blue-collar city where the median income is $35,000.
Rizzo, the city manager, and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, who were allegedly behind the looting of the city coffers, face trial later in the year.
The officials on trial are former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo and former council members George Mirabal, George Cole, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga. All except Artiga served as mayor at some point.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.