Ousted juror: No reason to halt cult memory trial

Houston Chronicle/February 24, 1999
By Mark Smith

A juror whose inadvertent contact with a prospective witness led to the mistrial in a fraud case against five former psychiatric hospital workers says he was not prejudiced by the brief encounter and believes the trial should have continued.

Jethro Caldwell, 57, said he was surprised to learn that a customer's comments to him in November while he worked evenings as a freight-cargo agent resulted in his disqualification and a mistrial this month.

"I wish I hadn't been at work that night," said Caldwell, who served as a juror during the day and then worked evenings to support his family. "After all those months, I wanted the trial to come to fruition."

Caldwell was among 12 jurors and four alternates selected when the federal trial began Sept. 9. Five former workers at Spring Shadows Glen Hospital were accused of conspiring to inflate insurance claims by saying patients suffered satanic ritual abuse.

U.S. Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. has set a hearing for Wednesday to consider motions from both sides regarding further action on the case.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Serres said prosecutors have not decided whether to seek a retrial. Factors in the decision include the cost, chance of prevailing, availability of witnesses, length of a new trial and whether it can be streamlined.

Defense attorneys said they doubt prosecutors will retry the case if they weigh all these factors. The defense has characterized the indictment as a government attempt to interfere with medical treatment it dislikes.

Several jurors were dismissed for various reasons during the trial, which originally was scheduled to last just two months.

Prosecutors called more than 30 witnesses, played more than 50 tape-recorded therapy sessions and introduced thousands of pages of medical records. The prosecution testimony usually was followed by lengthy defense cross-examination.

The panel of jurors and alternates was reduced to 12 on Feb. 8 when one was dismissed after writing a friendly note intended for a defense attorney, according to several jurors. Caldwell was dismissed the next day.

A jury of 11 can return a verdict in federal felony criminal trials if all parties agree, but the defense objected and Werlein ordered the mistrial.

He and the parties declined to explain the dismissal other than to say the action stemmed from inadvertent contact between a juror and a prospective defense witness.

Caldwell told the Chronicle this week that the contact came in November when he was working in the early evening as a freight cargo agent at Bush Intercontinental Airport. He said a woman came to the freight office to pick up flowers for a family owned nursery.

When a co-worker asked Caldwell how much longer he was going to serve as a juror in the federal jury, the customer overheard and began to question Caldwell about the trial.

"She told me she had a friend who had been in court since September," Caldwell recalled. The woman then asked if the trial involved her friend Judith Peterson, a Houston psychologist.

Peterson was a defendant in the trial, along with former hospital administrator George Jerry Mueck; psychiatrists Richard Seward and Gloria Keraga; and therapist Sylvia Davis.

"My expression told it all," Caldwell said. "I told her I couldn't talk about it."

The woman then indicated that Peterson had treated her.

"She said Dr. Peterson was a good person and saved her life," Caldwell recalled.

Caldwell told the customer he was prohibited from discussing the trial and walked away from the counter. Still concerned, he followed the woman to her car.

"I told her I was not admitting to being on the jury," Caldwell said. "And if you wanted your friend to have a legal trial, you'll forget you met me."

Caldwell said that he did not know the woman, that he has not seen her since and that he only learned later she was a possible defense witness.

He told several jurors about the incident afterward but didn't give it much more thought until Werlein summoned Caldwell to his chambers Feb. 8.

"When I told the judge everything, he didn't seem to think at the time that it would be a problem," Caldwell said. Werlein asked Caldwell if the contact caused him to have a bias in the trial, and Caldwell said it did not.

But the judge summoned Caldwell to his chambers the next morning and told him that he was dismissed as a juror. Werlein told Caldwell that the dismissal was not his fault and that he shouldn't feel responsible for the mistrial, Caldwell said.

A source familiar with the proceedings said the government asked that Caldwell be disqualified after defense attorneys told prosecutors about the contact. The defense learned of the encounter from the prospective witness a few days earlier.

Caldwell said prosecutors had not yet proved to him that the former Spring Shadows Glen workers had been involved in a criminal conspiracy.

"I don't see why the defense didn't go ahead with the case," he said.

During the five months of trial, several patients testified that they recalled abuses such as rape, torture, murder and cannibalism, but now believe a number of their memories were false, and were induced or reinforced by intense therapy at Spring Shadows Glen.

A number of jurors in addition to Caldwell wanted the trial to continue. Some defense attorneys -- and a report on an Internet site favorable to the defense -- have suggested that jurors decided in an informal vote after the mistrial that the government had failed to prove its case.

But several jurors told the Chronicle that they took no vote involving all 12 jurors and that their opinions on the strength of the government's case varied as to each defendant.

They also noted that their minds might have been changed by further prosecution testimony and by whatever evidence the defense presented.

Several jurors said the presentation of evidence could have been streamlined. They said they were shocked last year when Werlein revised his estimate of the trial's length from two months to seven months.

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