November 09, 1987 12:00 PM

On Jan. 10,1979, a Seattle-bound freight train derailed in Sturgeon, Mo., spilling the contents of a 19,000-gallon tank car over half a mile. A furor arose in the little town (pop. 900) when it became known that the industrial chemical in the tanker was a Monsanto Company product that was tainted with less than a teaspoonful of dioxin—perhaps the most toxic substance ever created, and one that remains active for 50 years. Enraged by Monsanto’s failure to issue warnings about the risk of exposure after the spill, 65 townspeople sued the St. Louis-based corporation for a total of $135 million.

But the angry citizens of Sturgeon weren’t the only ones touched by the accident. By the time they reached a verdict last month, the 12 jurors and one alternate who heard the suit had the wearying distinction of surviving the longest jury trial in American history. For three years and eight months—since Feb. 22, 1984—the lives of these three men and 10 women revolved around the St. Clair County Courthouse in Belleville, Ill. There, sitting in a windowless, wood-paneled courtroom, they heard the testimony of more than 140 witnesses and saw more than 7,000 exhibits. During recess and lunch breaks, they sat in a separate lounge under the watchful eye of bailiff Marlene Augustine, who censored their newspapers, snipping out any mention of the trial. Though allowed to return home at night, they were forbidden to discuss the proceedings with loved ones, and any absence—even a one-day honeymoon—had to be negotiated in advance.

When the lawyers finally finished presenting their cases in late August, the jurors deliberated for nearly eight tension-filled weeks before awarding the plaintiffs $16.25 million in punitive damages and a $29,063 compensatory award. “It was unbelievable,” says court clerk Barney Metz. “You really have to admire those people—I’d have been bouncing off the walls.”

And in fact the just-sprung jurors, though proud to have fulfilled their civic duty, admit that there were times when padded walls were in order. “I was doing okay for the first 1½ years,” says computer assistant Joan Lippincott, 33. “Then you started noting the effects on your life, with promotions [lost] and vacations [missed]…. I missed a lot in work areas. People I used to supervise are higher than me.”

As the months dragged on, the jurors began to suffer the occupational hazards of long confinement: weight gain, depression, boredom and squabbling. “It was like being in prison,” says Evelyn McDougler, a post office employee. By the bitter end, says Barbara Wettig, 39, a nurse’s assistant, “Some people were getting really tired of it. You knew when they came in they were having a bad day.”

Eighteen jurors were impaneled when the trial began; only 13 made it to the end. Four were excused for medical reasons, including a man who was diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and a young woman who developed complications in her pregnancy. Then, after spending 42 months in the courtroom, juror Barbara McCann, 49, was stunned to learn that she was being dismissed because the prosecuting attorney, Rex Carr, was representing one of her relatives in an unrelated case. “I cried all the way home,” she says.

The jurors who remained were, by all accounts, forged into an ad hoc family by the 44-month marathon. They shared joys and tragedies, weddings and funerals, diet tips, recipes and paperback romances. When Judge Richard Goldenhersh turned 40, they threw a surprise birthday party. When juror Barb Stanley called to report that her mare was having a difficult foaling, court was recessed for the day and several of her confreres piled into a van and drove out to the farm to offer support. Jury foreman Garry Crumer, 38, a telephone repairman, filled a photo album with snapshots taken in the jurors’ lounge, which was decorated for various holidays, and everyone contributed to a daily calendar that noted such courtroom highlights as the first time Judge Goldenhersh used his gavel, slamming it down on the stand with startling force. (“We jumped 10 feet,” says Wettig.)

As in all families, unfortunately, the forced intimacy also took its toll. Wettig compared the experience with weathering the strains in a marriage. “Someone could have a habit that didn’t bother you. Then a year later it would make you crazy,” she says. “One particular person, and I’m not mentioning any names, would smack while eating. Another would hum or sing a lot. We’d beg, ‘No more, please.’ ”

Each jury member contributed a bit of personal expertise to the deliberations. Wettig and Clara Moy Gully, 49, both of whom work in nursing, helped their colleagues decipher the endless medical jargon. Bill Hartmann, a brewer at Anheuser-Busch, commented on Monsanto’s quality control. “He was telling us each batch of beer gets tested 10 times before it leaves the brewery,” says Wettig. “Monsanto didn’t test that batch of orthochlorophenol [the main chemical in the tank car] once.”

As the trial droned on, jurors also began taking their frustrations home. “The trial controlled your whole life,” says Lippincott. “You couldn’t talk about it [out of court] and release your feelings, so you kept going over and over it in your own mind. It made me irritable. My husband is real glad it’s over—it was hard to be pleasant with each other.”

Internecine tensions increased considerably when the jury began its deliberations on Aug. 27. Most of the jurors were convinced that Monsanto had known the spilled shipment contained dioxin and that a substantial punitive award was in order. But there was one holdout, Evelyn McDougler. “We tried every angle with her,” says Gully. “She thought [the punitive damages] should be only $2 million. In fact there were some of us who wanted to fine Monsanto more than [$16.25 million]. But Miss Evelyn just wasn’t gonna go.” Says another juror: “For whole days she wouldn’t talk to anybody. It was very frustrating.”

“I just didn’t think it was fair for us to go in and try to punish Monsanto for something they did 11 years ago,” says McDougler. “I don’t see anything wrong they did.” She held out for four weeks, and at one point, she says, “three of ’em hit the ceiling. They were screaming and crying and calling me names.”

At times like those, the Belleville jury came perilously close to giving up. “One of us at a time would want to throw in the towel,” says Wettig, “but all together we wanted to make a verdict. We felt if we didn’t, our 3½ years would be wasted.” So the group decided to institute a calm-down period. “Every time someone got to the breaking point, thinking, ‘I can’t stand no more! Get me out of here!’ they’d write a letter to the judge,” says Wettig. “Then they’d think about it a minute, and the letter would end up in the wastebasket.”

Finally on Oct. 22, McDougler relented. “I don’t know what happened to me,” she says. “I didn’t have any intention of going along with them when I went in that morning. Then I told them, ‘I am going to give over, but it is against my will.’ ”

After the verdict was announced, McDougler complained to reporters that she had been pressured into changing her vote. She also precipitated a tempest when she disclosed that, contrary to the judge’s instructions, she had read newspaper accounts and watched television reports of the trial. Fellow jurors worried that her announcement could prompt the judge to declare a mistrial, and though that seems unlikely, Monsanto will doubtless use her comments to bolster its appeal.

Such distractions notwithstanding, most of the Belleville jurors are proud of their years spent in court. “You want the system to work for you if you ever need it,” says Carol Keller, 47, a secretary, “so it has to work for someone else. I’m glad we resolved [the case].”

“I learned things I never would have learned if not for this trial,” says Gully. “One of the Monsanto guys said that if we were in law school, we’d be lawyers by now. But we just want to get back to our jobs.” And perhaps to reclaim their independence. Helen Wiese, a retired clerical worker, didn’t even stick around for the judge’s post-verdict party at a local Mexican restaurant. “I just wanted to enjoy my freedom as soon as I could,” says Wiese. “I went home and watched the World Series.”

You May Like