Should the Mets' Owners Worry About Jury Bias in Their Madoff Trial?

Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz have reason to fear anti-"one percent" backlash—but they should be even more afraid of being judged by Yankee fans.

Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz watch pitcher Johan Santana during 2008 Spring Training

The case against New York Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz for disgorgement of their alleged ill-gotten gains from Bernie Madoff's fraud will be heard by a nine-person jury when the trial begins next week in a lower Manhattan courtroom, Federal Judge Jed S. Rakoff announced on Friday.

No "one percenter" relishes the idea of having their fate determined by the proverbial "jury of their peers" when that is precisely what they are not. Not surprisingly, Wilpon and Katz argued that there was no right to a jury trial in a case that originated in bankruptcy court, but without success. As a result, there has been much comment about how the wealthy team owners will fare at the hands of a jury. It has been suggested that "if they get some Wall Street types on the jury, or partners of big law firms" they might catch a break—but good luck with that. Not too many Wall Streeters or law firm partners wind up in the jury box. And besides, they are more likely than a shipping clerk or postal worker or shoe salesman to actually know someone who was ripped off by Madoff, hardly a plus factor for a defense contesting the claim of the Madoff victims' trustee that Wilpon and Katz turned a blind eye to Madoff's wrongdoing in their zeal to enrich themselves.

Of course, since the Mets are involved, another potential bias may be at play among jurors apart from wealth per se. As New York Times reporter Richard Sandomir asked, "Will the baseball allegiances of prospective jurors be explored? Will lawyers for the owners try to bar fans of the Mets—or welcome them as long as they are not wearing a team jersey and waving a foam finger?"

Given the dismal fate of the Mets under current ownership it is certainly reasonable to suppose that the team's (remaining) fans may harbor animus towards Messrs. Wilpon and Katz . But on the other hand, to the extent that an adverse judgment strips them of funds that might be used for the benefit of the team, perhaps a juror fan might be ready to go easy on them even if liability appears from the evidence—to let them off the hook for the sake of the team. In truth, either scenario is conceivable. And, even if this is not a criminal trial, in the era of O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony ANYTHING is possible when the jury steps up to the plate with its verdict.

But whether the team's Madoff tainted owners will have to worry about facing the wrath of Met loyalist jurors is more fanciful than real. There just won't be that many Met fans in the jury pool at all.

The case will be tried in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York , to give it its full official name. And the federal court system's "Southern District of New York" includes only Manhattan and the Bronx within the city but not Queens, Brooklyn, or Staten Island (i.e. the Yankees' but not the Mets' home turf) as well as suburban and upstate Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, and Westchester counties. Nor are the Long Island suburbs of Nassau or Suffolk within the Southern District. (Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk are within the Eastern District).

Although the Court sits in one borough of New York City (Manhattan) and the Mets play in another borough (Queens) the territorial bounds of that court—and the geographical source of its jurors—do not extend to the Mets' home field, or that of the core of its fan base, at all. As the common wisdom has it if you're looking for Met fans, look to Queens or Long Island. A personal observation: Riding on the 7 train back to Manhattan after a Mets-Yankees game at Shea Stadium a few years ago, I watched the Met regalia clad passengers peel off stop by stop until none were left by the time we reached the tunnel under the East River. Only Yankee hats were left. Nothing in the recent history of the Mets would indicate that the geographical extent of their fan base has expanded since then.

And so for the Mets and their fans, the trial counts as an away game. As their trial date nears, Wilpon and Katz have many things to worry about, but the prospect of facing a jury of Met fans ready to take revenge on them is not one of them. What Yankee fans (who include the judge) will make of their case is another, and likely more relevant, concern.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.

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