The jury had deadlocked. And the courtroom doors were locked.
About 30 members of the public and news media were shut out of a Douglas County courtroom Friday as jurors announced they had reached an impasse in their deliberations over whether Robert Wagner was guilty of assaulting an Omaha police officer.
Those gathered in the hallway could see through the locked, glass doors that the judge, court reporter, attorneys and Wagner were beginning a hearing in the fifth-floor courtroom. Two Douglas County attorney staff members were sitting in the gallery, and five sheriff's deputies lined the courtroom.
As the judge began the hearing, a World-Herald reporter pounded on the courtroom door. Deputies cracked open the door, and the reporter began to object to the prospect of a closed hearing as a violation of the Nebraska and U.S. Constitutions.
District Judge Duane Dougherty responded that he would allow in reporters and the public "in a minute." Dougherty then conducted a hearing.
According to those inside the closed doors, this is what happened: The judge asked the jurors whether they had reached a standstill; the jury forewoman said they had. The judge then asked the rest of the jury whether that was true; the jurors agreed. The judge asked if anyone thought that more time would help the deliberations; the jurors said no.
Dougherty excused the jury, then allowed the public in for attorney arguments on whether he should declare a mistrial, which he did.
Dougherty later said he considered the jury's note to him that they were at an impasse as a jury question that should be treated in confidence — in deference to jurors' deliberations. The judge said he also had concerns that a juror or jurors might blurt something out.
The World-Herald routinely has been in courtrooms when jurors have filed in to declare they are at an impasse. The newspaper subsequently has reported on the exchanges between judge and jurors.
Friday marked the first time in more than a decade that the newspaper's reporters had been shut out of a courtroom for anything other than grand juries, which by law are secret.
"This is an unfortunate departure from a good track record in Douglas County of supporting open courtrooms," Executive Editor Mike Reilly said.