CHICAGO (STMW) – Evelyn Ezell’s history in the Dirksen Federal courthouse is far from a pleasant one.
She was known as the “uncooperative” juror during George Ryan’s historic trial and, as a holdout on many counts, she locked horns in a bitter behind-the-scenes battle with fellow jurors.
Then in an extraordinary decision that many at the time feared would lead to a mistrial, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ousted Ezell and another juror because the two failed to reveal arrest records.
Now, in a strange twist, Ezell is back in the same federal courthouse after filing a lawsuit against her longtime employer who fired her.
The judge randomly assigned to her case: Rebecca Pallmeyer.
“I was like: ‘What? Pallmeyer?’ ” Ezell said she told her lawyer. “But she might not like me from the George Ryan deal.”
Her lawyer’s response surprised her. He told Ezell that Pallmeyer had a strong reputation for being fair and even if there were bias from the Ryan case, she would put it aside.
“You might think that was due to some sort of conspiracy. As far as I know it’s one of the weird coincidences of life,” Ezell’s lawyer, Tim Huizenga, said. “Her case could have been assigned to one of 25 different judges. We have found that to be quite an odd coincidence.”
Ezell ended up winning the lawsuit by default because the defendant, Dessent Roofing, didn’t answer; but it’s solely up to Pallmeyer to decide what damages Ezell should be awarded.
In an interview last week, Ezell, 49, said she felt vindication landing a victory in the same courtroom that was once the source of many unpleasant memories during Ryan’s 2006 trial.
She engaged in nasty fights with other jurors where she said she was called a “dog” by one. (That juror has said he told her he could more easily explain a concept to a dog.) And after spending six months sitting through the trial, she was kicked off for failing to reveal her criminal history. Her background of arrests, including for child neglect and drugs, were exposed for the world to see.
Ezell and another juror were thrown off of Ryan’s jury after sitting through six months of testimony and after meeting to deliberate on eight occasions.
Ezell indicated on a jury questionnaire that she had never been accused of a crime and during deliberations, the Chicago Tribune wrote a story revealing that she had an arrest record. Prosecutors argued they should have known that before trial. Defense lawyers didn’t protest initially but Ezell later became the subject of numerous legal motions.
Ezell said she now supports anonymity for future jurors but said background checks, including of potential Rod Blagojevich jurors, wouldn’t hurt.
“If they decide to do that then they need to do it before not after. I’m open for that,” she said.
Just two weeks ago, Pallmeyer denied a bid by Ryan to be freed early from his 6 1/2 year prison sentence to join his ailing wife. Ezell, who has repeatedly said Ryan’s case should have been declared a mistrial, said she felt for the former governor but he should accept the judge’s ruling.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Ezell said. “But he has to swallow it.”
Despite getting fired, she says her life has taken a pleasant turn since those George Ryan days.
“I tell you, since then, just things have been happening that are good,” Ezell said.
On top of winning the lawsuit, she has purged from her record the arrests that brought so much media spotlight at the time of Ryan’s trial, she said.
Ezell said after the 2006 trial she went to the courthouse at 26th and California and requested that the arrests be cleared from her record.
“Until you start learning this legal stuff, I didn’t know anything was hanging over my head. I had never been convicted of anything, and I thought once charges were dropped, charges were dropped,” she said. “I never had any convictions, but I had charges. What I’ve gotten since then, is I’ve gotten an expungement.”
Court records do not reflect whether there was an expungement but they no longer appear to show various arrests, including for drugs, that ended up raising issues.
It was the Ryan trial and spending six months away from work that Ezell said she believes fueled tensions there.
Ezell, who lives in Chicago, worked for Dessent Roofing for 10 years and her husband, Andrew, worked there for two years. They filed the lawsuit together, claiming retaliation, discrimination and harassment.
In the complaint, Ezell said that in February of 2009, her employers allegedly hung a poster of President Obama near her work space.
“Wanted for impersonating a Blacman (sic). Please contact the FBI,” it read.
Ezell complained about the poster and also complained that her husband, the only African American roofer at the company, had not been called back to work.
“When she filed a charge of discrimination with the Department of Human Rights, the employer fired her,” Huizenga said.
Ezell is asking for her job back and more than $53,000 in back pay. If she’s not rehired, she is asking “front pay” of nearly $100,000 for the next three years, according to court records. An attorney listed for Dessent said he no longer represented the company, which could not be reached for comment.
While her luck in court may have changed, Ezell said she never again wants to sit on a jury, even though it may not be up to her.
Ezell’s discussions with other Ryan jurors devolved into screaming matches at times. At one point she sent Pallmeyer a note asking if she had to be subjected to insults.
“I don’t want to be on another jury for the rest of my life,” she said. “It’s not the stuff I went through with the media . . . It’s the part dealing with the jurors, that’s why I won’t do it again.”
–Sun-Times, via the Sun-Times Media Wire
(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2010. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)