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Cellini: Toss guilty verdict after juror didn’t disclose convictions

William Cellini longtime behind-the-scenes power broker Illinois government listens his lawyer Dan Webb react guilty verdict Dirksen Federal Building Tuesday

William Cellini, the longtime, behind-the-scenes power broker in Illinois government, listens to his lawyer, Dan Webb, react to a guilty verdict at Dirksen Federal Building, Tuesday, November 1, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 13, 2011 9:04AM

A federal juror’s apparently undisclosed criminal history is raising new questions over the guilty verdict in the case of William Cellini, the Springfield power broker convicted early this month of corruption linked to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

While Cellini’s lawyer said Friday he would move to have the verdict thrown out and a mistrial declared, the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a statement that it’s not that cut and dried.

Meanwhile, experts say that felonies do no automatically disqualify jurors from serving and that even if a judge finds that the juror lied about criminal convictions, the appeals courts have a long reputation for keeping jury verdict’s intact.

During jury selection in Cellini’s case last month, a female juror answered “yes” on a questionnaire and wrote “DUI” in response to a question that asked whether she had ever been arrested or convicted of a crime, according to a statement by the U.S. District Court’s clerk of court’s office.

When she was questioned by U.S. District Judge James Zagel about her answer in voire dire, she gave this response, according to a court transcript:

Zagel: “You were asked the question, ‘Have you or a family member ever been arrested? And you gave an answer. Does that refer to you or to someone else?”

Juror: “Someone else.”

Zagel: “Okay. A relative of yours?”

Juror: “Yes.”

The juror went on to say the person was convicted and treated fairly. According to court records, the woman had a felony drug offense and was sentenced to probation in 1999. In 2008, she was convicted of felony aggravated DUI and not having a valid ID and again was sentenced to probation.

According to a statement by the U.S. District Clerk of Court Michael Dobbins, the juror did not disclose arrests or convictions elsewhere on any documents.

The disclosure of the felony convictions first came in a Friday Chicago Tribune report.

“We have a juror who was legally not qualified to serve as a juror. We will be filing a motion for a mistrial Monday morning,” said former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, the attorney for Cellini, a millionaire businessman convicted of trying to shake down the producer of the movie “Million Dollar Baby” for campaign money for Blagojevich.

“We believe the two counts of conviction have to be thrown out. The two most important counts that were not guilty should not be thrown out because they would fall under the double-jeopardy clause.”

But the U.S. Attorney’s Office released a statement saying that jurors convicted of felonies are not automatically disqualified from serving on juries.

“Under Illinois law, civil rights are automatically restored upon the ‘completion of any sentence of imprisonment or upon discharge from probation, conditional discharge or periodic imprisonment.’ Thus, a person who has completed his or her sentence on a felony conviction is not disqualified from serving on a federal jury,” the statement said.

Former prosecutor Phil Turner said he’s seen “unbelievable things” revealed about jurors after conviction, including that a juror had gone to school with a prosecutor, or considered information they’re not supposed to consider — and the conviction stays.

“Unfortunately, the way the law is, especially in the 7th Circuit, it doesn’t give the defendant any relief. The courts go to great lengths to sustain jury verdicts,” Turner, a defense lawyer, said.

“It has to be something extremely, extremely severe. Even if the government withholds exculpatory evidence … The court says ‘well, OK, this was wrong, but does this make a difference?’”

Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer said the juror lying goes against the whole concept of jury voire dire.

“Voire dire means speak the truth,” Cramer said. “It makes it very hard to select a jury if someone’s lying.” But Cramer said it’s likely an uphill battle for Cellini, even if the juror did lie.

“If the remedy here is that the juror gets in trouble, that doesn’t do the defendant much good,” Cramer said. “You now have this issue that unfortunately wouldn’t exist and could have been avoided, if the court had run a background check.”

Zagel ordered background checks on jurors in the case of Blagojevich but did not in the Cellini trial.

Turner said the situation is unlikely to overturn the verdict but should because the juror appeared to have lied. “Here is a juror who lied from the get go … someone who lies you can’t trust to obey an oath.”

Contributing: Rummana Hussain and Frank Main

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