Stevens jury sent home, deliberations halted

Image: Courtroom sktech
An impromptu moment of silence in the courtroom with defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan, Ted Stevens and judge.Art Lien/NBC News
/ Source: The Associated Press

A judge on Friday ordered a one-to two-day halt to jury deliberations in the corruption trial of the longest serving Republican in the U.S. Senate, the latest setback in a gripping case and one that could delay a verdict until after Election Day.

Sen. Ted Stevens was counting on a speedy verdict that will send him back to the state of Alaska vindicated in time for a Nov. 4 vote in one of the most closely watched races in the U.S. Senate. He is locked in a tight contest with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat.

Democrats, who are hoping to capture a stronger Senate majority, have jumped at the chance to seize a seat that Stevens has held for 40 years. They have invested heavily in the race, running television advertisements starring fictional FBI agents and featuring excerpts from wiretaps.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who ordered the recess, said he wanted to accommodate a juror whose father died. The juror rushed to California early Friday, before jurors were set to begin their third day of deliberations.

Deliberations delayed
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.

Trial beset by problems
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. 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 will not reach the unanimous decision needed for a verdict. Without unanimity, a trial ends in a mistrial and prosecutors must decide whether to start over.