Judge Susan Criss
Since the explosion at the BP plant rocked Texas City in 2005, the Houston Chronicle has been on top of the story. Now that the first trial against the company has reached a settlement, a judge's order is keeping the Chronicle from continuing that coverage by talking to jurors.
District Judge Susan Criss said in a hearing Sept. 24 that jurors could not speak to reporters until all 1,200 pending lawsuits are resolved, denying a request from the Chronicle and the Galveston Daily News.
Criss presided over the trial of four plaintiffs injured in the Texas City blast. It was the first of more than 3,000 suits from the explosion at the refinery that killed 15 to make it to trial and was in its 10th day of proceedings at the time of the settlement. Both sides said that not all evidence had been presented.
"We've been covering this since the explosion. It's a big story," Steve Jetton, an assistant managing editor for the Chronicle told the Record in a telephone interview Sept. 25. "We would like to talk to the jurors about their perceptions over as much of the trial as they heard. We just want them to have the opportunity to talk."
Jetton said that while judges frequently instruct jurors not to talk to media during the course of a trial, he had never seen a judge order them not to talk after a trial.
"This is the first time I've heard of prohibiting jurors from talking once they have been discharged from service," Jetton said. "She said she is trying to stop the 'tainting' of the jury pool for the still-pending cases, but I think that is a remote likelihood."
Jetton said getting jury's perceptions is standard courtroom reporting.
"All we want is for them to have the option to talk to us," Jetton said. "That's all we're asking for. You can't obliterate free speech."
He said that attorneys for BP as well as the plaintiffs, including Beaumont attorney Brent Coon, were in agreement with the judge's ruling to keep the jurors quiet until after all the suits have been tried or settled.
"But with 1,200 cases pending, it could be a cold story by that time," Jetton said.
All remaining cases are in court-ordered mediation, though some could go to trial Nov. 26 if settlements aren't reached. All cases involving deaths were settled by last year, and remaining cases involve injuries and property damage.
Criss allowed the four-man, eight-woman panel and four alternates to talk to her and lawyers involved in the incomplete trial after she told them that the cases had been settled and their service was done.
After hearing from the panel, Criss told the Chronicle that she observed "some trying to please everybody in the room."
And Lance Lubel, who represents plaintiffs in some of the pending cases, said he supported Criss' order because people in future jury pools may read what jurors thought about the incomplete case and reach biased conclusions.
"I don't see the value in the information the Chronicle seeks. I do see the potential to taint the jury pool," Lubel said in a Sept. 24 Chronicle story.
Jetton said the Chronicle plans to file an appeal to Criss' ruling in Harris County District Court in the next few days.
The Record contacted Bill Ogden, attorney for the Chronicle, who confirmed the appeal was in progress but referred any other comments to Jetton.