‘Facts and common sense’: Chicago’s corruption jurors reflect on past trials as Ed Burke’s case nears

By Chicago 11 Min Read

One called it a “life-altering experience.”

Another saw it as “just another thing” she did this summer.

A third made it part of the standup comedy routine she performs on open mic nights.

They are among the 36 people who served as jurors in three high-profile corruption trials this year at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. They were each summoned out of their routines and carefully chosen to help decide the fates of six people who operated near the levers of power in Illinois.

On every count, they sided with prosecutors. They convicted a longtime confidant of former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a former CEO of ComEd, a son-in-law of former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios and Madigan’s longtime chief of staff.

Now, their ranks are expected to grow. Twelve jurors could soon be picked through the same process to decide whether former Ald. Edward M. Burke, Chicago’s longest-serving City Council member, is guilty of racketeering and extortion charges.

  • ComEd jurors say they didn’t believe the jobs and money that went to Madigan allies were just legal lobbying

More could be chosen next year to consider the case against Madigan.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys are certain to test the verdicts in higher courts as they seek to undo their clients’ convictions.

The Chicago Sun-Times contacted members of the three panels who have served so far to ask how they look back on their service. Among the 36 jurors were a veterinarian, a birdwatcher, teachers, a nurse, a security consultant, a literacy coach and a TV meteorologist.

ComEd juror Amanda Schnitker Sayers speaks to reporters after the jury on which she served returned a guilty verdict on May 2.

ComEd juror Amanda Schnitker Sayers speaks to reporters after the jury on which she served returned a guilty verdict on May 2.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

The views of those who spoke to the Sun-Times were just as varied. But the jurors largely praised the staff at the federal courthouse, believed they were fair to the defendants and did their best to follow the rules laid out by each judge.

“All I had were the facts and common sense and some instructions,” said Tiesha Jones, a Chicagoan who served on the panel that convicted former Madigan chief of staff Tim Mapes of perjury and attempted obstruction of justice.

Thousands of people a year are called to the federal courthouse in the Loop for jury duty, some from as far as La Salle County. Those who serve are paid $50 a day, unless they are federal employees, plus mileage at 65.5 cents a mile. Failing to report for jury duty can lead to a fine or even brief imprisonment. 

Being pulled away from work or family obligations can also be difficult, though judges try to avoid choosing jurors if their service would cause an extreme hardship.

Much of the jurors’ time is spent waiting. Once they’re chosen and seated in the courtroom, they become a captive audience for prosecutors and defense lawyers. But while there is plenty of dry testimony in federal court, there also can be moments of high drama. And jurors wind up with an up-close look at the U.S. justice system that most people rarely get.

  • Jury convicts all four defendants in ComEd bribery trial — and fires a warning shot at Michael Madigan

“It was a very life-altering experience,” said Robert Garnes, an IT professional who lives in the west suburbs. “It was something I’ll never forget, ever.”

Garnes served on the panel that convicted four people with ties to ComEd, including longtime Madigan ally Michael McClain and former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore. All four were convicted in May of a nearly decade-long conspiracy to bribe Madigan.

Garnes said he “never would have guessed” that those four defendants would have found themselves on trial, given their public personas. He said the eight-week trial opened his eyes and taught him not to judge a book by its cover.

“I’m just a little bit more discerning about certain things,” Garnes said.

  • Jury takes 5 hours to convict Madigan’s ex-top aide of perjury, attempted obstruction of justice: ‘This should stand as a clear message’

Garnes said he kept track of the later trial of Mapes, who was convicted in August. Garnes said the Mapes trial confirmed suspicions he’d had from the earlier trial he weighed in on.

“The weeks that we were on jury duty was opening doors for the next trial and the next trial and the next trial,” Garnes said. “It all ties in.”

Jones, who is more accustomed to working night shifts, acknowledged having some trepidation about the justice system. She said she doesn’t feel it’s designed for people of color, and it wasn’t lost on her that she was one of only a few people of color on the Mapes jury.

Still, she said her job was to listen to the facts, and she didn’t take that duty lightly. 

“I do think that, as a group, there was a fair decision,” Jones said.


Sarah Goldenberg, the foreperson of the jury that in May convicted four people of conspiring to bribe former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Sarah Goldenberg, a senior analyst at Grainger who lives in the northwest suburbs, defended the verdict in the trial of McClain, Pramaggiore and others. Goldenberg served as the foreperson for that panel. She said she had “promised” herself she would seek that role if chosen for jury duty so she could help organize deliberations. She said she made sure the panel diligently considered the evidence against each defendant.

But Goldenberg also found humor in an otherwise serious trial involving bribery in the halls of the Illinois state capitol, recalling testimony about a “daddy talk” and the cross-examination that followed in which McClain’s lawyer repeatedly used the phrase. 

Goldenberg called that “one of the funniest moments at the trial.” She said she struggled to maintain her composure in court, wrote “daddy talk” in “huge” capital letters in her juror notebook and has since used it in her standup comedy routine at open mic nights. 

“I’m just laughing as an inappropriate juvenile, trying to maintain composure in the courtroom,” Goldenberg said. “And it’s something that people can resonate to, laughing at inappropriate times, when I’m performing.”

  • Businessman James T. Weiss guilty of bribing 2 state lawmakers, lying to the FBI

Unrelated to the ComEd or Mapes trial was the trial of Berrios’ son-in-law James Weiss, who was convicted in June of bribing two state lawmakers. A juror who served on that panel, who asked to remain anonymous, said jury service “felt like I was going to work.”

After Weiss’ trial ended, that juror said she became aware of Mapes’ trial, which began about two months later. She said she didn’t follow the Mapes trial closely, more curious to know how Weiss would fare in sentencing.

On Oct. 11, U.S. District Judge Steven Seeger gave Weiss 5½ years in prison. 

“You would think that it’d be more for bribing public officials,” the juror said when told Weiss’ sentence. Still, she said, “I also have no idea how any of that works.”

She also recalled jotting something along the lines of “public officials are worse than I thought they were” in her notes during Weiss’ trial.

Mapes and the four defendants from the ComEd trial are set to be sentenced in January.

ComEd juror Amanda Schnitker Sayers.

ComEd juror Amanda Schnitker Sayers: “There are so many, kind of, unsung jury heroes out there.”

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Amanda Schnitker Sayers, a veterinarian from Logan Square, served on the same panel as Garnes and Goldenberg, considering the four ComEd defendants. She spoke about their verdict shortly after it was delivered, answering questions for reporters in the courthouse lobby. 

She later told the Sun-Times her decision to speak out had an unexpected consequence: Strangers reached out to her, sending notes through Facebook and the hospitals where she works. They wanted to thank her for her service.

“That was a huge surprise,” Schnitker Sayers said. “And also very nice.”

She said she learned that a client of hers wound up serving on a federal jury at the same time in a separate fraud case that led to an even lengthier trial.

Schnitker Sayers said that reminded her of all of the jurors who serve during trials that get little, if any, attention. Jurors hear cases involving all kinds of charges. And the trials they listen to can last from a few days to several months. 

“There are so many, kind of, unsung jury heroes out there,” she said.

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