A U.S. Appellate Court judge blasted Judge James Zagel on Monday for his stewardship of the Family Secrets mob trial, calling “foolish” Zagel’s dealings with a juror who had expressed fears about her personal safety.
The remarks by 7th Circuit Judge Diane Wood came during a hearing by a group of convicted mobsters seeking to have their cases overturned. Joseph Lombardo, James Marcello, Frank Calabrese and others contend they were subjected to double jeopardy in the case, and that their attorneys never had adequate opportunity to question the frightened juror.
At issue was juror #14, who reportedly expressed fears for her safety early in the trial. Zagel told lawyers in the case’s seventh week that he had excused the juror after she felt “uncomfortable” in the high-profile murder case.
“There was prejudice here,” said Lombardo’s lawyer Frank Lipuma. “Judge Zagel had far too many contacts with this juror.”
Lipuma and the other lawyers argued they should have had a chance to question the juror, to find out if she had expressed her fears to other members of the panel. And Judge Wood, who was recently considered a prime candidate for a Supreme Court nomination, seemed to agree.
“Don’t you find it a little remarkable that the judge was wandering in and out of the jury room?” Wood asked. “This seems to be an invitation to trouble.”
“Judge Zagel’s approach was a little foolish,” she said. Fellow judge Diane Sykes likewise wondered aloud if the juror’s “reasons for needing to be excused spilled over to the remainder of the jury.”
Appellate judges often ask very pointed questions during oral arguments, and most observers caution that those inquiries should not be considered hints of how the judges will later rule. But after court, attorney Lipuma seemed encouraged by Wood’s criticisms of Zagel’s courtroom procedure.
“Judge Wood, of course, was on the short list of Supreme Court nominees,” he said. “Of course, a brilliant mind. I could not agree with her assessment any more.”
Wood, a former professor at the University of Chicago Law School, was nominated to the Seventh Circuit by President Bill Clinton in 1995. She was a candidate to replace Justice David Souter, when he left the Supreme Court in 2009. That seat went to Sonia Sotomayor, but Wood was vetted again when Justice John Paul Stevens stepped down a year later. That seat went to then-U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan.