Juror Dismissed after Hearing of $1 Settlement Offer
By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee [Fresno CA]
December 14, 2006
A juror in the civil trial of a Fresno priest accused of molesting an altar boy nearly 20 years ago was dismissed Wednesday after he said he overheard shoppers discussing the plaintiff's offer to settle the case for $1.
On the fourth day of deliberations, the juror told Judge Donald Black that the $1 settlement offer and the plaintiff's demand that Father Eric Swearingen leave the priesthood would influence his judgment.
Black replaced the male juror with an male alternate, retaining a jury made up of seven women and five men. But with a new juror, the entire panel had to start over on its deliberations.
The trial in Fresno County Superior Court pits Swearingen, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Woodward Park, against former altar boy Juan Rocha, now 31 and an Army sergeant first class.
Rocha has accused Swearingen of molesting him at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bakersfield and at St. Alphonsus parish in southwest Fresno when Rocha was between 12 and 15 years old. He is seeking unspecified damages from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, contending he suffered emotional distress from the alleged abuse.
During the trial, Swearingen testified that he allowed Rocha to stay temporarily in the two rectories but never molested him.
Last week, after the first day of jury deliberations, Black issued a gag order after Rocha's lawyer, Larry Drivon, said publicly that Rocha offered to settle the case for $1 — provided Swearingen leaves the priesthood. The diocese's lawyer, Carey Johnson, immediately rejected the offer, saying Bishop John Steinbock firmly believes in Swearingen's innocence.
The gag order prohibits lawyers and anyone associated with the case from talking about the trial and swaying jury deliberations.
Wednesday, Black had to contend with publicity of the settlement offer, as well as legal issues involving jury instructions and the special verdict form.
Shortly after 9 a.m., the male juror sent a note to the judge, indicating that he had inadvertently learned of Rocha's settlement offer while shopping.
With lawyers and the public present, Black summoned the juror into the courtroom about 9:40a.m. The juror then explained that he overheard shoppers talking about the settlement offer Tuesday evening.
When the note was written, the juror told Black that knowledge of the settlement would affect his decision because of the way the jury was leaning. Since then, the jury changed its course, the juror said, causing him to say his decision was no longer affected by the offer's disclosure.
Upon further questioning, the juror conceded his decision would be affected if the jury were to return to its original starting point Wednesday. Black then dismissed the juror.
Before the alternate was seated on the panel, he told Black that he had seen a newspaper headline regarding the $1 settlement offer. He said the offer's disclosure would not affect his judgment and assured the judge that he would consider only the evidence presented during the trial.
Jury deliberations will continue today.
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6434.
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