A juror in a civil lawsuit against the city of Portland over police use of force failed to disclose during jury selection that he works for the city. The revelation opens up the possibility of a new trial.
Portland City Attorney Robert Taylor told OPB his office learned the juror worked for the city after the verdict and immediately disclosed it to the court and the plaintiff.
That jury awarded Erin Wenzel $40,272 Tuesday after they found a Portland police officer committed battery by pushing Wenzel to the ground as she followed police directions during an Aug. 14, 2020, racial justice protest. Wenzel suffered a broken arm as a result. The jury found she was not assaulted and that the city was not negligent in its police training.
Wenzel’s financial award in the case was a fraction of the $450,000 she had sought.
The jury voted 11-1 in favor of the battery claim. It isn’t immediately clear if the juror who works for the city voted against Wenzel or not. The city did not disclose the juror’s name or position with Portland’s city government.
Multiple people familiar with the situation said the juror identified himself as a construction manager. Juror number 1 was the only juror of the 40-member pool initially called during selection who said that was his job. That juror also said he had a mentor who worked at the Portland Police Bureau.
During last week’s jury selection, attorneys for both sides asked jurors what they did for a living, their educational background, if they have friends or family who work in law enforcement, a number of other questions about their views of the police and whether or not they’ve been involved in a trial before or victims of a crime.
Only one juror disclosed a professional relationship with the city, juror number 13, who said she was retired from parking enforcement in Portland. Wenzel’s attorney, John Burgess, said she wasn’t dismissed from the jury because she no longer worked for the city and indicated she didn’t think it would impact her ability to fairly deliberate on the case. It would be more unusual to have someone on a jury who works for the defendant, Burgess said.
“It would have been an automatic, for cause basis for removing somebody from the jury,” he noted.
The pool of 40 potential jurors was never asked explicitly if they worked for the city, but one juror said she was the CEO of a nonprofit whose largest funder was the city of Portland.
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Katharine von Ter Stegge thanked the juror for raising the potential conflict even though she had not been specifically asked.
“Lawyers will ask a lot of questions, I will ask a lot of questions,” von Ter Stegge said. “Sometimes, we don’t get the question exactly right so if there’s something you think is important for the lawyers and the parties to know about in terms of whether or not you have a conflict … please tell us even if we don’t ask.”
The judge also told jurors if they remembered something later they could bring it up anytime, even if it was after their turn answering questions.
“The fact that it wasn’t disclosed and we don’t know the effect that it had on the jury’s deliberations is concerning,” Burgess said. “I’m still sorting out the details and what effect that would have on the case.”
Burgess said if the juror’s employer was simply missed by the court, then it could have been accidental, but if the juror failed to disclose it after having been asked to, then the omission could be juror misconduct.