Monday, April 2, 2012

Tight Control, Few Explanations in Courtroom 304

Two jurors were dismissed without explanation Monday in the archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse trial. Judge M. Teresa Sarmina started court an hour late with the announcement that Alternate Juror No. 1 would be replacing Juror No. 7, and Alternate Juror No. 2 would be replacing Juror No. 9.

Why were the jurors sent packing? The judge didn't explain. There was courtroom chatter about medical emergencies and jurors who may have overheard things, but no official explanation was forthcoming.

The jury, which began with 12 regulars and 10 alternates last week, is now down to 12 regulars and 6 alternates. Two alternate jurors were also dismissed last week, without explanation. In a trial expected to last at least two months, losing two jurors a week doesn't bode well, but it's early yet.

The judge did announce that court will not be held on Fridays during the trial. Jurors have the option of going to work on Friday, but "my preference is that you don't go," the judge said. She warned jurors that if they do show up for work on Fridays, she would prefer that they wear a sign that says, "Don't talk to me." The judge was smiling when she said this, but she may not be kidding.

The judge warned jurors that some co-workers cannot help themselves, and may show up at their desks wanting to talk about the case. She repeated her instructions to the jury, that she doesn't want them talking about the case, even to their families. She also doesn't want jurors twittering or posting on Facebook, or tuning in to media coverage of the trial, or even taking notes at home.

Lawyers in the case are still chafing under the judge's gag order not to talk to reporters. No one in the courtroom is allowed to bring in computers, cell phones or any other electronic devices. Some lawyers have been overheard complaining that they can't tell time without their cell phones.

Reporters are not allowed to see any of the evidence displayed on courtroom computer screens until the case is over. The press is grumbling, but the judge's iron grip on the proceedings has shut down a potential media circus. The archdiocese sex abuse trial is not spinning out of control like the 2009 trial of former state Senator Vincent J. Fumo.

Unlike the Fumo case, there is no live blogging of the archdiocese trial by the newspapers, no twittering jurors, and little or no TV coverage. "There's no visuals," one TV reporter griped.

Courtroom spectators also have it tough. They have to pass through two metal detectors, one inside the courthouse, another outside the third floor courtroom. They also have to climb stairways that reek of cigarette smoke, as the building's few elevators are usually swamped with a massive crowd of lawyers, jurors and spectators, all trying to get upstairs at the exact same time. The fastest way up to the third floor courtroom of Judge Sarmina is usually a dash through the hazy, dirty stairwells of Tobacco Alley, decorated with large red letters on the walls that say "No Smoking."

Meanwhile, the judge is not taking any nonsense from any of the participants. "Don't argue with me, Mr. Bergstrom," she warned a defense lawyer Monday. She has also repeatedly lectured one of the prosecutors about ditching his attitude and running commentary. She doesn't allow lawyers to state their reasons for objecting. She routinely corrects detectives  when they are reading the archdiocese's secret archive files into the record, and stumble over words like "canonical." In Courtroom 304, there's no doubt about who's in charge. But as to what's going on, well, the judge doesn't seem all that concerned about what the press and the public may not know.

Also on Monday, one former defendant in the trial, the defrocked Rev. Edward V. Avery, was seen by a TV crew for NBC Channel 10 showing up at the Criminal Justice Center wearing a baseball cap, sweatshirt and jeans. The TV station reported that the priest was turning himself in to begin serving a sentence of between 2 1/2 to 5 years. Avery pleaded guilty last week to involuntary deviant sexual intercourse with a 10-year-old and conspiracy and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child, rather than face trial. Again, there was no explanation for what was going on. And because there's a gag order on, reporters can't question defense lawyers or prosecutors in the case, because they're not supposed to talk to the press.

Meanwhile, the number of spectators in the courtroom have dwindled. The media, which packed Opening Day with 30 reporters, is now down to a handful. A few Catholic activists show up, hoping for reform. Some priests and nuns attend the trial, to express support for the defendants. One spectator, a paralegal, loudly complained on Monday during a courtroom break that her religion was being defamed by false accusers, and anti-Catholic law enforcement types.

"Is that detective Catholic?" she asked after a detective stepped down from the witness stand, after testifying about the secrets in the secret archive files. Yes, the detective was a Catholic, the woman was told. Then a courtroom deputy showed up to tell the paralegal to pipe down.


  1. Excellent summary, Ralph!

    I have been following this case for a long time, and this is the best sense I have felt of what it is like "in the courtroom."

    I appreciate the work!

  2. Thank you so much for your information and reporting of the trial. I am following your blog closely and I appreciate your thoroughness. I hope and pray for justice for the victims.

  3. Thanks Ralph, I was hoping for coverage of this trial because I think it will be a landmark event for Roman Catholicism in the US. Your blog is beyond my wildest expectations. Like Momma says, I appreciate your thoroughness, and today's post finally explains why the coverage has felt so shallow---other than yours.

  4. Ditto from me, Ralph, still coming here every day to read this.
    I especially like descriptions of people, tones of voice, the smoky stairwell. Bring it alive, Ralph, show those reporters from corporate media outlets how to do it.

  5. Thanks so much, everybody, for the kind comments. For years now, writing for blogs like this and occasionally, Philly mag, I have had a ball writing about all the color and controversy that happens in courtrooms that the mainstream media doesn't cover. In a word, the reason why I get to write fun stuff like this that peeks behind the curtain is because I don't have any editors to deal with. Here's my golden rule for dealing with editors, that I used to pass along to my journalism students. Most editors, with few exceptions, are just roadblocks to get around. If you're telling them something they've heard before, you are OK. But if you tell them something new, that's when the trouble starts. Don't miss 'em.

  6. Much appreciated, Mr Cipriano.

  7. Thanks for another outstanding article. Great

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