NEW YORK — Jurors in the epic criminal case about philanthropist Brooke Astor's fortune seemed to have hit a breaking point.
With deliberations in their eighth full day, one member felt so threatened by a fellow juror's comments that she asked to be dismissed. One appeared to be crying in the courtroom.
Three days later, the same jurors unhesitatingly rendered a unanimous verdict, convicting Astor's son and an estate lawyer of plundering the frail socialite's wealth.
A dramatic turnaround? As fraught as the Astor jury seemed, it wasn't the first to founder on tensions but ultimately deliver a verdict. Appeals courts have upheld convictions that came after jurors expressed fears of being assaulted by fellow panel members or locked themselves in a bathroom to get away from deliberations.
Still, some legal experts say the apparent jury-room fireworks in the Astor case could be fertile ground for an expected appeal — ground that defense lawyers may have prepared in an unsuccessful mistrial request. For now, attorneys for Astor's son, Anthony Marshall, and lawyer Francis X. Morrissey Jr. aren't saying whether they plan to pursue one.
As for the jurors, several downplay the friction as they look back on the five-month courtroom drama, in which such star witnesses as Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters helped provide an often sad and intimate look at a society legend. If emotions sometimes ran high, the group generally was congenial, methodical and committed, they said.
"I felt lucky to be on a jury with 11 people who were intelligent and truly fair," said juror Ilona Gale, a city HIV prevention worker.
It's hardly startling that 12 strangers' effort to decide questions of guilt can be fractious — see Exhibit A, the jury-room classic "12 Angry Men."
In fact, jurors often say afterward that they felt threatened, said Los Angeles-based jury consultant Philip K. Anthony. His firm, DecisionQuest, has interviewed more than 10,000 civil and criminal court jurors after their service.
Some have told him they were so rattled by fellow jurors that they asked others — or court bailiffs — to walk them to their cars. Others expressed concern about fellow jurors finding out where they lived.
"I've had jurors tell me another juror told them, 'When the trial's over, I'm going to meet you outside, and we'll have it out on this,'" Anthony said.
It's less common for jurors to report their apprehensions to the court during the trial, but there are a number of examples.
One strategy: Day off to cool down
Just last month, a New York federal judge gave a jury a day off to cool down after one member said others threw a chair and threatened to "beat me up" while deliberating on whether the osteoporosis drug Fosamax caused painful jaw bone destruction. The civil trial ended in a hung jury; the plaintiff's lawyer has said he expects a retrial.
A federal jury weighing a campaign-related mail-fraud case against a former Kentucky state senator and his wife in 2004 continued deliberating after one female juror said she would "kick the backside" of another juror. The guilty verdicts were later thrown out for unrelated reasons.
As in the Astor trial, juries often are asked to work through clashes and do, said New York Law School professor Randolph Jonakait, author of "The American Jury System," published by Yale University Press.
Some courts have stepped in, however. A judge in Niagara Falls, N.Y., declared a mistrial in a murder case in 2001 after a juror said a colleague might have choked another jury member and suggested black jurors were being pressured to change their votes. The defendant, accused of killing a man on behalf of the victim's wife, was later acquitted.
Some appeals courts also have shown concern about jury strife. A New York appellate court overturned a Bronx man's 1984 attempted rape conviction because a juror holding out for acquittal said another jury member "came at me with her fists" before being restrained by others. Appeals judges, noting that the trial court didn't respond to the juror's alarm, called the guilty verdict "the result of coercion" and ordered a new trial.
Defense lawyers in the Astor case raised the specter of coercion as they pressed for a mistrial after hearing Monday that one unidentified juror felt "personally threatened" by another's comments.
If she was the same juror in tears in the courtroom, "one must have grave doubts about whether she can continue to follow her own conscience, or whether she instead will choose her own safety over the rights of the defendants and simply succumb to intimidation and change her views," one of Marshall's lawyers, John Cuti, wrote to the court.
Judge A. Kirke Bartley denied defense bids for a mistrial or an inquiry into the juror's ability to continue. Instead, he told the panel to keep deliberating, with "respect and civility."
If defense lawyers try to make juror tensions an issue in their appeal, they will confront a legal system that is generally reluctant to scrutinize deliberations, except when they may have been improperly swayed by outsiders, legal experts said.
But a claim that a juror was frightened could be an exception, Fordham University School of Law professor Jim Cohen said.
Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a University of Dayton School of Law professor whose research focuses on juries, said any claim would depend on what actually happened in the jury room.
"Is it going to rise to that level (of being seen as coercive)? Only those people in that room know," he said.
Astor juror Barbara Tomanelli won't discuss any conflicts that erupted during deliberations. She describes the process as thorough and patient, with jurors hunting through reams of notes, raising hands to speak and meticulously working through the 18 charges on a blackboard and a flip chart.
When a divide persisted, the group would review testimony, move on to another count or take a walk, she said.
Yes, it was grueling, but fascinating, and "I was very proud of the fact that we did it," the retired executive assistant said. After it was all done, "we were able to ... sit around and have beers together. And that ought to tell you something."
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