Proceedings in the federal bribery trial of labor leader John Dougherty and Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon were upended Tuesday after a juror tested positive for the coronavirus.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl announced the news from the bench after delaying the start of the 21st day of the trial without explanation. The judge said he had ordered the other jurors and alternates to get rapid tests and their results had thus far all come back negative, including results for the two people who sat closest to the juror who tested positive.
One juror was still awaiting results Tuesday afternoon and the other had not yet been able to get tested, Schmehl said. All members of the panel said they are vaccinated, the judge added.
The development threw a roadblock in the waning moments of the closely watched public corruption trial on the day the jury was expected to begin deliberations. It also served as a test of the COVID-19 response protocols for a court system that has only just begun returning to some semblance of normalcy after nearly two years of scaled-back operations.
The diagnosis raised questions about how the jurors in Dougherty and Henon’s trial could safely deliberate in close quarters after they had all been potentially exposed, but Schmehl insisted that at this point it would not derail the trial.
He dismissed the affected juror Monday — citing “a personal matter” at the time — and replaced her with one of three alternates.
The remaining members will return to court Wednesday morning for Schmehl to instruct them on the law of the case before sending them off to begin their discussion.
The deliberations will take place in a large courtroom, instead of the typically cramped confines of a jury room, Schmehl said, adding that all those remaining on the panel will be tested regularly “like sports teams do” until a verdict is reached.
The news didn’t appear to rattle either of the two men at the center of the trial, who spent the moments before Schmehl took the bench looking relaxed, chatting, and sharing private jokes and candy with family members and supporters.
As recently as weeks before the trial started last month, the courthouse at Sixth and Market Streets was hosting only a limited number of trials — typically lasting no more than a few days and involving a single defendant and a handful of witnesses.
Dougherty and Henon’s trial, by contrast, has featured dozens of witnesses and attracted much more public and media interest than any proceeding the court system has mounted in the two years since both men were charged.
Since the start of the trial, Schmehl has required everyone to wear masks and implemented spaced seating in the gallery and jury box in line with the courthouse’s COVID-19 protocols.
However, on Monday — when the juror first reported the issue to the court — the room was packed to its fullest capacity yet, with family members and supporters of both Henon and Dougherty attending to hear lawyers present closing arguments.
Prosecutors maintain Dougherty in effect bought Henon’s vote on Council and the powers of his elected office with a $70,000-a-year union salary — allegations both men have denied.
They face multiple counts of conspiracy, honest services fraud, and bribery that threaten to send them to prison for up to 20 years on the most serious count they both face.
Staff writer Max Marin contributed to this article.
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