Tight Control, Few Explanations in Courtroom 304

By Ralph Cipriano
Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog
April 2, 2012

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, as well as stairways that reek of cigarette smoke, as the building's few elevators are usually overrun with a massive crowd of lawyers, jurors and spectators, trying to get upstairs. 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 who stumble when they are reading the archdiocese's secret archive files into the record. 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 with 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, apparently to turn himself in. Avery plead guilty last week 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 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.








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