A Superior Court judge Monday angrily blasted the jury forewoman in the Heidi Fleiss trial for contributing to misconduct in the stormy deliberations that convicted the Hollywood madam. However, Judge Judith L. Champagne put off a decision about whether to grant a new trial.
Champagne said she will announce Friday whether the misconduct in the steamy trial was so egregious that it resulted in an unfair verdict against Fleiss, who was convicted in December of three counts of pandering.
An enraged Champagne chastised jury forewoman Sheila Mitrowski after hearing testimony from Mitrowski and another juror. The pair said they and other jurors had discussed the case outside the jury room and also talked about swapping convictions on some counts in exchange for acquittals on others, violating the judge's order to focus solely on guilt or innocence.
Mitrowski should have halted such conduct because as forewoman she had "assumed the responsibility . . . to guide other jurors," Champagne told Mitrowski after the forewoman's testimony. "To say your performance was less than satisfactory or leaves something to be desired would be a gross understatement."
Mitrowski did not appear shaken by Champagne's rebuke and left the witness stand with a smile.
Jurors have said they discussed swapping verdicts in an attempt to lessen Fleiss' sentence. They have been less clear on their motivation for that, although Mitrowski told a Times reporter shortly after the verdict that pandering did not seem severe enough a crime to warrant incarceration.
In Monday's hearing on a motion by Fleiss' attorneys for a new trial, Champagne rejected some of the attorneys' claims. She said some misconduct did not warrant a new trial, such as the claim that one juror had brought outside information--dictionary definitions--into the deliberations.
At one point the judge appeared to be on the brink of a ruling. However, citing discrepancies between Monday's testimony and sworn affidavits taken earlier from five jurors by Fleiss' attorneys, Champagne said she needed to further review the case.
Fleiss, who is free on bail while awaiting a sentence of at least eight years in prison, began her day in court looking self-assured and smiling frequently, but was disappointed by Champagne's refusal to rule. If the judge refuses to a grant a new trial Friday, Fleiss is scheduled to be sentenced immediately.
"It's really hard--very, very hard," said Fleiss, dressed in a short gray suit with a gray turtleneck.
The jury deadlocked on two other pandering charges and acquitted the 28-year-old high school dropout of a drug-related charge. Mitrowski, Zina Alavi and two other jurors mistakenly believed that the drug charges carried a heavier penalty and that pandering would mean a sentence of probation. They said that was why they attempted to reach a verdict that acquitted Fleiss of the drug charge.
On the day that the verdicts were announced, several jurors expressed dismay and outrage on learning that Fleiss faced a prison term.
In a carefully orchestrated campaign, Fleiss' attorneys elicited declarations from five jurors, who said in sworn affidavits that they had engaged in misconduct.
In her affidavit, Mitrowski said she met during a lunch break with two other jurors and "openly discussed the potential punishment faced by Fleiss. We speculated that if convicted of pandering, she would in all likelihood receive a probationary sentence."
Mitrowski's affidavit said that when she later learned that her vote meant Fleiss faced prison, she regretted that she had "agreed to and did trade my guilty vote on the pandering counts in exchange for a not guilty vote on the narcotics offense."
The forewoman repeated her account Monday. Testifying, like Alavi, under a grant of limited immunity from prosecution, she said she informed four jurors that she heard on television that Fleiss faced up to 11 years in prison if she was convicted. She said that after the case went to the jury, jurors discussed a plan that included trading votes with several like-minded jurors to spare Fleiss from prison.
Juror Alavi downplayed the alleged misconduct Monday, saying, "We were not in cahoots. We did not make this big plan. We were not planning this conspiracy." Alavi also said the informal, out-of-court talks among several jurors involved "body language discussion" in which gestures and nods sometimes took the place of words.