ATLANTIC CITY — Christine Petersen had been on the job less than 24 hours in 2010, when the then-police chief told her he planned to sue her, she told a courtroom Tuesday. Then came her account of former police chief John Mooney standing before her, angry and red-faced, telling her she could not speak to officers. Those were some of the stories recounted in court as Petersen testified in a whistle-blower lawsuit Mooney has brought against the city, Petersen and Mayor Lorenzo Langford.
While those stories, and other testimony that has flowed from both sides of the courtroom over the past two weeks, have been compelling, Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson warned attorneys Tuesday that time was running out. The court is in danger of losing nearly half of the jury if the case continues into next week, and that loss leaves open the possibility of a mistrial, Johnson said.
“This could blow up on us,” Johnson told attorneys Tuesday. “You think I want to declare a mistrial after four weeks?”
For more than two weeks the jury deciding the the case has listened to lengthy accounts of potentially politicized investigations into sexual misconduct, a financial shortfall looming over the city and conflicting testimony on whether city officials specifically said they wanted to get rid of the police chief in a round of layoffs and demotions.
Meanwhile, Johnson said three jurors have received angry calls from their employers saying they need to return to work next week.
The trial is in its third week of testimony. Jury selection also took a week. Mooney’s attorney, John Donnelly, said it was the most arduous jury-selection process he’s seen. Johnson said it was the second most arduous process he’d been through.
The jury is made up of eight people. Only six are necessary for deliberations, according to the court. If the jury drops to five, however, Johnson will have to decide whether the case can continue. If Johnson decides that’s not prudent, a mistrial could be declared.
This is the second time the possibility of a mistrial has been mentioned in the case. On Monday, Donnelly made a motion for the judge to recuse himself from the trial, alleging that Johnson was biased. The judge denied the motion. Had it been granted, it would have resulted in a mistrial.
Petersen’s testimony continued throughout an elongated day Tuesday. The court will reconvene at 8:30 a.m. today — a half hour earlier than usual — with Petersen still on the stand. Langford is expected to follow as the defense team’s next witness.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the jury heard Petersen testify about her first conversation with Mooney more than three years ago.
During that conversation, she said Mooney asked her about the spelling of her last name. After providing the spelling, she said the former chief told her it was good to know “because he needed it for the lawsuit,” Petersen said.
She described her relationship with Mooney as immediately tense, recounting a decision by former Business Administrator Michael Scott to move Petersen into what had been Mooney’s office. By her second week on the job, Mooney was demanding that all Petersen’s directives to him come in writing, a request Petersen said she would not comply with.
Statements painted a picture of Mooney as a man with a temper who was not comfortable dealing with Petersen as an authority figure.
Petersen also described a confrontation with Mooney during her second day on the job. As a lieutenant was bringing her a box of supplies, she said Mooney stepped in front of her, put his finger in her face and told her she was not to talk to his police officers.
“I thought he was going to hit me,” she said.
Another city employee who was present has testified that she was kidding when she made similar statements about Mooney potentially hitting Petersen.
Mooney has said he didn’t believe the public safety director should have been using Police Department supplies. He contests her description of his behavior and said he never did anything to intimidate her.
Also brought into question Tuesday is a city report that appears to have gone missing regarding the city’s K-9 unit.
Before Petersen announced in May 2010 that the police dogs be returned to service, she says she penned a report supporting her position. The report was never produced in discovery, despite attempts by Mooney’s attorneys to obtain a copy.
On Tuesday, Petersen said she does not have a copy and does not know what happened to the report. She said nothing she wrote in the report was critical of the administration or was in any way disparaging.
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