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Holdout in Needham doctor’s case told judge of bullying

Unusual letter details conflict in drug trial

Dr. Joseph Zolot is accused of recklessly prescribing powerful opioids.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

Dr. Joseph Zolot is accused of recklessly prescribing powerful opioids.

Shortly before a mistrial was declared in the federal case against a Needham doctor accused of recklessly prescribing powerful opioids, the lone jury holdout complained that she felt so bullied by the other jurors she wanted to be removed from the panel.

In plain, unvarnished language, the female juror wrote Judge Patti B. Saris that the stress of deliberating against 11 other jurors who wanted to convict the doctor was hurting her health and mental well-being.

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“One of the jurors started yelling at me . . . and I left the courthouse thinking that I would rather break a toe than spend another day stuck in a room with the other jurors,” she wrote in a letter dated Aug. 4. “Whenever anyone gets irritated it does seem like I have become the scapegoat.”

RELATED: Mistrial in Needham doctor’s drug case

The letter, which was sent to Saris three hours before the jury told her they were hopelessly deadlocked, provided an unusual glimpse into the insights of a person rarely heard from — the lone holdout in a high-stakes criminal case.

The deadlock frustrated jurors, who had spent seven days poring over evidence in a case that stretched over five weeks and dismayed the relatives of the six people who prosecutors said died after overdosing on painkillers prescribed by Dr. Joseph Zolot and his nurse practitioner, Lisa Pliner.

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz has said her office intends to pursue a second trial, but defense attorneys said the deadlock indicates how hard it could be to convince 12 jurors that a crime occurred.

During the trial, Zolot and Pliner portrayed themselves as concerned caregivers whose only error might have been inadvertently letting addicted patients dupe them into giving them more drugs.

“Any time that you are trying what is ordinarily a question of judgment in a criminal context, you have a very difficult question to answer,” said Max Stern, a criminal defense lawyer who has followed the case. “Where does the judgment end and crime begin?”

RELATED: Needham doctor will face lesser charges in patients’ deaths

Another juror who spoke at length with the Globe on Monday said that 11 jurors were ready to convict Zolot and Pliner on most of the 11 charges against them, including conspiracy to violate federal drug laws and eight counts of drug distribution.

That juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the holdout seemed determined not to budge on her position and uninterested in the arguments of other jurors.

In her letter, the holdout said that after fellow jurors accused her of not being open-minded, she tried to articulate her position by writing it down on paper.

“Only four people bothered to read what I wrote and the rest seemed to just dismiss my ideas,” she wrote. “Some, but not all of the jurors have started to accuse me of not being as thorough as they are. I do not agree with this. I believe this is just because they are frustrated with me and have stopped respecting my ideas.”

She told Saris she believed that “deliberations may be edging towards misconduct (as I interpret the situation).”

The female juror said that other members of the jury proposed “vote-trading” in order to become unanimous on two of the counts.

She said that jurors began switching their votes and when she asked one juror why, he replied: “ ‘I would have still voted X on this, but then we would be here until Aug. 15th.’”

Another female juror switched her vote to the majority and when the holdout asked her why, “She said because she had to,” according to the holdout.

But the juror interviewed by the Globe said that at no point was anyone asked to vote against their conscience.

“There was no such conversation,” the juror said. “It was the process of just trying to understand each other’s points of view.”

The juror said that other members of the jury were willing to acquit on some charges as long as there was a unanimous vote to convict on others.

“A lot of people that felt guilty said I can be swayed to change my vote on some counts as long as I know in the end there will be jail time,” the juror said.

After receiving the note, Saris held a hearing with lawyers on both sides to discuss it, which she said seemed to go too far in describing what was happening in the jury room.

“It’s all improper,” Saris said. “She shouldn’t have done it.”

The judge said she was not sure the jury was behaving as the juror described, but she called jurors back into the courtroom to give them instructions.

“It is the desire of the court and all of us, all the parties, that if possible, you return a verdict on all defendants on all counts, if you can do so without violating your individual conscience,” Saris told them. “Each person has to come to this based on their individual conscience.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.
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