WASHINGTON – A judge ordered a one- to two-day halt to jury deliberations in Sen. Ted Stevens' corruption trial Friday, the latest setback in a gripping case and one that could delay a verdict until after Election Day.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said he wanted to accommodate a juror whose father died. The juror rushed to California early Friday morning, before jurors were set to begin their third day of deliberations.
Prosecutors asked Sullivan to bring an alternate juror onto the panel so deliberations could continue but the judge declined. The first two days of deliberations have been marked by reports of stress and violent outbursts in the jury room and Sullivan said jurors might benefit from a break.
"Everybody needs a day off now and then," Sullivan told the jury. "I want you to enjoy yourself this weekend."
Sullivan said he would speak with the juror Sunday night and determine whether she could return Monday. He said he might delay deliberations until Tuesday or call in an alternate.
If an alternate is tapped, jurors would be ordered to start deliberating anew. Election Day is 11 days away. Stevens, 84, is locked in a tight race with Democrat Mark Begich, who is trying to unseat the 40-year senator.
The Senate's longest-serving Republican, Stevens is charged with lying for years on Senate financial disclosure documents to conceal $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts from his friend, millionaire oil contractor Bill Allen.
The trial has been beset by problems since the eight women and four men received the case Wednesday afternoon. Within hours, jurors asked to go home, sending a note to the judge saying that things had become "stressful." Thursday afternoon, a more explicit note was handed up, with jurors asking that one of their members be dismissed.
"She has had violent outbursts with other jurors, and that's not helping anyone," the note read.
Sullivan did not send the woman home. Instead, he called jurors into the courtroom and told them to "encourage civility and mutual respect among yourselves."
Tension in the jury room normally is viewed as good for a defendant. It increases the likelihood that jurors won't reach the unanimous decision needed for a verdict. Without unanimity, a trial ends in a mistrial and prosecutors must decide whether to start over.