Courtroom cliff-hanger in Will & Grace case

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The trial over a hit sitcom turned into a courtroom drama Thursday when a verdict in the case of the two creators of Will & Grace versus NBC Studios was tossed out minutes before it was to be read.

Jury foreman Dean Hartwell was removed for not disclosing that he operates a Web site that includes writings critical of big corporations, including NBC and its parent General Electric, and the rest of the jurors were questioned about any influence Hartwell's views might have had on the deliberations.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Warren Ettinger, who is presiding over the case, was expected to announce Friday morning whether there would be a mistrial or whether deliberations would begin from scratch with an alternate juror taking Hartwell's place.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Ettinger knows the verdict.

Will & Grace creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan and their agent, Scott Schwartz, sued NBC Studios in 2003, claiming that the studio failed to negotiate a fair licensing fee for the show with sister network NBC, which they say cost them about $65 million in lost revenue.

It looked as if the 2-1/2-month trial was headed for a conclusion when the jury indicated at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday that they had reached a verdict after seven days of deliberations. The court sealed the verdict and ordered the panel to return the next morning.

But instead of reading the verdict Thursday morning, Ettinger was confronted with a mistrial motion filed by NBC Studios' legal team led by Henry Shields alleging Hartwell's misconduct, leaving both sides to figure out how to go about handling the allegations when there's a verdict in hand.

Attached to his motion were pages from Hartwell's Web site, DeanHartwell.com, which features political commentary, mostly about the Bush administration. But in one critique, Hartwell took aim at big media conglomerates and their lack of covering what he believes are important issues.

Of the lack of real news coverage, Hartwell wrote, "How can the corporate media (such as ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) miss all of these stories and annoy us with phony ones? Consider the sources: (The Walt Disney Company owns ABC, Viacom owns CBS, General Electric owns NBC and News Corporation owns Fox). The executives who make the decisions on what to air receive huge tax cuts thanks to Bush administration policies, as do the corporations themselves."

Addressing the last-minute filing, Shields said the information about Hartwell's Web site was not discovered until Wednesday night.

With the jury sequestered and oblivious to the new development, Kohan and Mutchnick's attorney Ronald Nessim argued that the articles in question posted by Hartwell predated the case.

In a rare move, both sides agreed that Ettinger should open the sealed envelope containing the 12-page verdict form and review it.

After saying, "If it is a defense verdict, then [NBC's motion] is moot," Ettinger scanned for a several minutes the lengthy verdict form, pausing on some pages more than others.

Ettinger then said, "It is the court's opinion that it is appropriate to interview the foreman before going forward," which indicated that the verdict might have gone for the Kohan and Mutchnick.

Ettinger and attorneys from both sides then met with Hartwell in chambers for at least 40 minutes.

Following the meeting, Ettinger took his seat in the courtroom and summoned the jury, who by then had been in the jury room for two hours.

Ettinger told the 11 original jurors that Hartwell had been removed from the panel and replaced by an alternate juror, a woman, and that they must begin deliberations "anew." The announcement came as a shock to the jurors. Many gasped and sighed when told they would have to begin again. One woman sat with her mouth open, shaking her head.

"I apologize to you for having to do this," Ettinger said.

Ettinger was not part of the jury selection. He took over the trial from original judge Emilie Elias, who recused herself from the case on the day opening statements were slated to take place after learning her husband had stock in General Electric.

In the afternoon, Ettinger asked the 11 original jurors four questions--two from each side--about what influence Hartwell had either directly or "subliminally" in their decisionmaking.

Shields indicated he would submit to the judge by Friday morning points and authorities on whether the entire panel should be dismissed.

Of the day's events, he said, "It's been an interesting morning." Nessim declined comment.

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