Federal Judge Brian Miller today declared a mistrial in the defamation lawsuit against Jim Harris, chief deputy to state Treasurer Dennis Milligan, by David Singer, who was fired from an office job.
The trial was recessed yesterday when Harris was taken from the courtroom by paramedics after complaining of chest pains. Luther Sutter, attorney for Singer, indicated that he was skeptical of the episode (“Called it,” he exclaimed in court.) He said sympathy engendered among jurors for Harris would make it impossible for his client to get a fair verdict.
KATV reports that Miller declared a mistrial this morning. Harris wasn’t expected to be in court and there’s been no word available on the specifics of his condition. The judge had indicated a mistrial might be required because jurors had been heard asking court employees about Harris’ condition. The judge also expressed unhappiness with Sutter’s remarks.
Singer says he was defamed by an e-mail that Harris wrote that suggested he was unstable and wrongly fired by Milligan. Harris said he had not intended for the e-mail to be made public and he and others say Singer was fired for poor performance, not because of the e-mail.
Byron Freeland, one of Harris’ attorneys, said Harris looked ill in the courtroom yesterday and said he took numerous medications for health conditions.
The judge’s decision followed this letter to the court Thursday from Harris’ attorney:
Should Mr. Harris not be able to return to the courtroom on Friday or early next week, there seems to be two problems. One is the plaintiff’s argument of sympathy for Mr. Harris affecting the jury’s verdict on the defamation case. The second is that plaintiff planned to call Mr. Harris as a rebuttal witness.
Before the court makes a decision based on the second concern, defendants propose that they complete their case tomorrow. After defendants rests, if plaintiff desires to call Mr. Harrisas witness in rebuttal on a subject matter that cannot be presented via his video deposition, then counsel for plaintiff can make a proffer of what testimony is needed from Mr. Harris. The Court can then determine whether plaintiff would be prejudiced by the inability to call Mr. Harris in rebuttal.
Matt Campbell, an attorney for Singer, also filed a motion for Judge Miller to get off the case for referring to Sutter’s comment on Harris’ health as “despicable.” Campbell said the judge had jumped to that conclusion without hearing why Sutter had good faith reason to believe Harris might be faking.
Lawyers for Harris and Milligan said portions of Campbell’s request should be stricken as scandalous and they also said expressions of “impatience, dissatisfaction, annoyance, and even anger” are not sufficient grounds for recusal of a judge. The parts they want stricken are accounts of purported indications before the trial that Harris would fake an injury for sympathy; that Harris’ lawyers had gratuitously put Harris’ heart condition before the jury; and that Milligan had a record of feigning an injury in another court case.
UPDATE: John Lyon of the Arkansas News Bureau has some good courtroom-back-and-forth before the mistrial was declared. It would be funny if conduct of the treasurer’s office and its staff wasn’t as serious as, well, a heart attack.