Extras - The Trial of Heaven Corporation v. Michael Jordan

Beth A. Mrkvicka is a Reference Librarian at Katten Muchin & Zavis.  Previously, she was a Librarian at both the Chicago and Houston Public Libraries, and KPMG Peat Marwick.  She has a B.A. from DePauw University and an MLS from Indiana University.

(Archived January 15, 1999)

Let me start by supplying the answers to the three questions I am most frequently asked about my experience as a juror on the Michael Jordan trial:

  1. Yes, he does have a presence like no one else I've ever met, and does seem to be as nice as I'd hoped he would be,
  2. Yes, the members of the jury did get his autograph (more on that later!), and
  3. No, I'm still not quite sure how a librarian for a law firm that represents the Bulls was selected to serve on this jury!

For the better part of five weeks, from September 10th until October 15th, I spent my days with a group of fourteen others in Courtroom 2104 at the Daley Center as a juror in the trial of Heaven Corporation v. Michael Jordan. Jordan had been sued by Heaven for breach of contract for failure to appear in their film, "Heaven is a Playground" back in 1989. The film went on to be made, without Michael Jordan, in the summer of 1990. Distribution was limited, profits were dismal and Heaven claimed that Jordan's failure to appear in the film was the reason the film was a flop and careers were ruined. Heaven was asking for damages totaling $16 million to $20 million. Jordan countersued on the basis that he had been mislead concerning the truthfulness of Heaven's statements about their financing. In the end, after seven and a half hours of difficult deliberation, we found in favor of Michael Jordan, and awarded him $50,000 (the advance he had originally been given, but had returned), but awarded him no punitive damages.

Heaven's attorneys, the press, and many people I've spoken with expressed the opinion that there was no way a Chicago jury would find against Michael Jordan. But as a member of that Chicago jury I can tell you that we did not reach our decision quickly and that less than half of us voted in his favor in our first straw poll at the beginning of deliberations. Fortunately for us, the instructions we received from the judge made it crystal clear what we had to do. Once we went through the list of obligations each side had to prove, our decision, while still not easy, was based on those instructions. Heaven Corporation had the burden of proof and we found that they had not met their obligations under the contract, therefore releasing Jordan from appearing in the film. We learned a lot about the way Hollywood operates, and believe me, it is not the way most of corporate America works! Contracts are signed after filming begins and money isn't always in the bank when it needs to be. Although this may work most of the time for the folks in Tinseltown, this time the letter of the law worked in Jordan's favor.

As expected, finding jurors who claimed to be objective was a struggle. Jury selection took three days and many were quickly dismissed after admitting there was no way they could be unbiased about Michael Jordan. All potential jurors are asked some general questions by the Judge based on questionnaires filled out on the back of our jury summons. By the time that process is over, everyone knows where you live, where you work, if you've ever been a victim of a crime, served on a jury, etc. At the end of the day I was questioned by the Judge, I was asked to stay after because the attorneys had some questions specifically for me. Here I was, sitting in the jury box all by myself in an empty courtroom, with Michael Jordan and his attorneys, and the Heaven team all facing me! I was asked if I was aware that my firm (Katten Muchin & Zavis) had represented Heaven in the 1980s. I was not since it was before I joined KMZ. I was asked if I was aware that my firm represented the Bulls. I was. I was then asked if any of that knowledge would have an effect on my ability to make an impartial decision based on the facts of the case. I told them it would not. I obviously "passed the test" and was asked back the next day for the voir dire process. For me, that turned out to be less intense than for some. I said that although I believed Jordan was an excellent athlete, he was also human and had to face this lawsuit like anyone else who had been sued.

Except for the fact that Michael Jordan, his agent David Falk, courtroom artists, plainclothes body guards and reporters were in the courtroom nearly every day, the trial itself seemed rather routine. Contracts, bank accounts, hundreds of exhibits, highly paid expert witnesses, and many many objections and sidebars were the course of the day. This was a side of the law I had not personally witnessed except on TV, and it was interesting to see attorneys holding their Westlaw printouts, knowing full well that a law librarian had probably supplied them. Other members of the jury expected me to know much more about the process of the trial than I actually did, but I was able to shed some light on how legal research is conducted and what roles some of the people in the courtroom played.

On the last day of the trial, following deliberation and the reading of the verdict, we met with both sides in the jury room. We had been told by the Judge that one or both sides might want to meet with us and we had no objection. However, for me, the meeting with Heaven was awkward; these were not bad people, just folks who had not followed the letter of the law. Sympathy ran high for Heaven Corporation, which was a major reason no punitive damages were awarded to Jordan. Our meeting with the Jordan people, on the other hand, was exciting and fun. After weeks of sitting across the room from him, Michael Jordan was now sitting at a table next to me! By this time, our roles had all changed. He was no longer the defendant, but the world's greatest basketball player, and we were average citizens -- his peers! His attorneys were anxious to learn from us what worked, what didn't, our perceptions of some of the witnesses, our reactions to certain pieces of evidence. It was great fun for us to finally be able to ask some of our questions as well! As everyone stood to leave, it seemed very natural when one of the jurors asked for Jordan's autograph on her certificate of service. Quickly, others followed suit. As I said, our roles had changed!

If it's true that everyone has his or her own fifteen minutes of fame, than mine is certainly coming to an end. I appeared on the local news the night of the verdict, have been interviewed by my hometown and local newspapers, was asked to speak at a Litigation Department meeting, and still am regularly asked questions in the elevator at work, at church, and by neighbors and friends. Many members of the jury have stayed in touch and we've already had a party. It truly was an experience I won't soon forget, and any other jury experience I may have certainly has a tough act to follow!

************

Reprinted with permission, CALL Bulletin No. 171 (Winter 1998)