The Alabama Supreme Court refused a last-minute request by Exxon Mobil to stop jury selection Wednesday for the retrial of the state’s record-setting lawsuit against the oil company.
Exxon Mobil’s attorneys contended the pool of potential jurors had been tainted by hundreds of letters that one of the state’s attorneys, former Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley, sent to hundreds of people, asking if they knew anything about any of the potential jurors.
The Supreme Court, in a brief decision Wednesday morning, rejected Exxon Mobil’s request, and jury selection began at the Montgomery County Courthouse. Opening arguments in the case are scheduled for Monday, with Circuit Judge Tracy McCooey expecting the trial to last two to three weeks.
In December 2000, a Montgomery jury ruled Exxon Mobil had cheated the state out of royalties from natural gas wells drilled in state-owned waters along with the Alabama coast. The jury ordered the oil company to pay the state $3.5 billion, which was six times larger than the state’s previous record for a jury verdict.
Last December, the Alabama Supreme Court overturned the verdict. In a 6-3 decision, the justices said McCooey erred when she allowed jurors to see an internal Exxon legal memo that outlined the company’s options on royalty demands from Alabama’s conservation department.
With jury selection scheduled to start Wednesday morning, Exxon Mobil’s attorneys turned to the Alabama Supreme Court on Tuesday afternoon with a request to stop the proceedings and get a new group of potential jurors to handle the case.
The oil company’s attorneys argued its right to a fair trial was violated when Beasley sent the list of potential jurors to hundreds of lawyers and non-lawyers, asking them for any information they might have about the potential jurors. Exxon Mobil attorney, Sam Franklin said Beasley’s letters didn’t caution the recipients to refrain from contacting any of the potential jurors.
The letters went to many of the 1,333 people on a mailing list maintained by Beasley, but Beasley said at a hearing last week he could not say exactly who received them because those records had been shredded.
“We do shred things because people check our garbage occasionally,” Beasley told the judge.
Beasley said there was nothing unusual about his law firm seeking information about potential jurors for use in selecting 12 people to hear the case. “This is routinely done in Montgomery cases,” he said at the hearing last week.
McCooey has prohibited the attorneys from discussing the case outside the courtroom.