Juror Throws the Book at Starr's Whitewater Case

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Who ever said that the original Whitewater mess was boring? Forget the excitement of the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- Susan McDougal's Whitewater contempt trial went on a wild roller coaster ride on Friday when, of all things, a juror brought an Arkansas criminal law book into the room where the jury was deliberating McDougal's fate. A court clerk snatched it before the jury could consult the book. The judge abruptly halted the proceedings to investigate the possibility of jury tampering, but deciding that no harm had been done he later ordered the deliberations to resume on Monday. "The strange incident provided yet another indication that the jury is having a hard time deciding this case," says TIME Washington correspondent Viveca Novak, who has been following the trial.

The law is straightforward on the issue of freelance investigation and research by jurors: It's strictly prohibited. Juries are supposed to reach their decision only on the evidence they hear at trial, and only according to the legal instructions they receive from the judge -- period. The McDougal jury has been struggling since it went into deliberations, however, sending out no fewer than three notes seeking clarification on various points, such as state of mind and the meaning of "innocent reason." Says Novak: "It's difficult to know, but they seemed to be begging to be informed about what might be a reasonable defense for contempt." The judge could have declared a mistrial as a result of the law book incident, but by deciding to keep the proceedings on track he provided a breather of sorts to independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The independent counsel will be testifying before a Senate committee next week and will undoubtedly be asked to explain to his critics the multiple prosecutions he has already brought in the Whitewater probe. "If a mistrial had been declared," says Novak, "Starr would have been forced to decide whether to pursue McDougal yet again."