CINCINNATI — Nearly two months after a jury convicted former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld of public corruption, attorneys are still fighting over potential juror misconduct, raising the specter of a possible mistrial.
At issue is a female juror, who is known as Juror X, who made multiple posts on Facebook during the high-profile trial, including during jury selection and on the night before the verdict was announced.
Sittenfeld’s legal team has been pushing for a forensic exam of her electronic devices, to see what else she may have posted. That issue is now before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The investigation into juror misconduct has been shrouded from public view. Most court filings that mention specifics of what jurors are accused of doing or saying, are either heavily redacted or under seal. And U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole has apparently held three hearings on the matter behind closed doors – including two on the day the verdict was announced, July 8, and another on Aug. 17.
“It gives a perception of unfairness,” said Darren Ford, an attorney for WCPO. “It gives a perception that proceedings of such grave importance as this are taking place behind closed doors, without affording the press and the public an opportunity to monitor what’s going on.”
On Monday attorneys for WCPO and The Cincinnati Enquirer sent a joint letter to Cole asking for more access. The media outlets want all future hearings in the Sittenfeld case to be placed on the court’s public docket, allowing them a chance to object if a hearing is expected to be closed.
Defense attorneys filed a motion on July 22 demanding an inquiryinto ‘Juror X’s electronic devices.
Unbeknowst to the media, Cole denied that motion for a forensic exam on Aug. 3. The judge kept the order under seal until last week, allowing time for Sittenfeld’s attorneys to conduct a closed-door hearing to further question two jurors, according to court filings.
“If the juror examination did occur, our clients were deprived of the opportunity to be heard on the issue of their exclusion from that hearing, as they had no advance knowledge that it was to occur, and when,” Ford wrote.
After a three-week trial, jurors convicted Sittenfeld of bribery and attempted extortion. He accepted $40,000 in campaign donations from FBI agents who were posing as developers and wanted his help on their Convention Place Mall project downtown.
Sittenfeld was the third council member the FBI arrested in 2020 on public corruption charges as a result of a massive sting at City Hall involving at least three undercover FBI agents and multiple informants who secretly recorded numerous elected leaders.
“The Sittenfeld case has been, and continues to be, of great interest to the greater Cincinnati public … the role of the press in bringing information on the post-trial proceedings into alleged juror misconduct to the public is no less important than the role it played during the conduct of the trial itself,” Ford wrote.
Media outlets are also petitioning the appeals court to release transcripts of the secret hearings about juror misconduct and juror questionnaires. WCPO asked the appeals court to unseal Cole’s order on the forensic exam, but he has since unsealed it.
“The court will allow Sittenfeld to designate two other jurors for further questioning … to be conducted in an in camera (closed) hearing,” Cole wrote in an Aug. 3 order. “The court will seal this opinion pending completion of the juror testimony … the court’s concern is that making this decision public in advance of the contemplated juror testimony may result in tainting that testimony in some manner. “