By Claire Brennan
Westfield resident Ms. Ann Chen’s days are relatively calculated: She works as the data coordinator for Mount St. Mary Academy in Watchung. But her predictable schedule was thrown for a loop this September, as she was selected to serve on one of the most infamous New Jersey trials in recent years—Bridgegate. Chen was one of the jurors hand-picked to decide the fate of co-defendants Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni.
“We all looked at each other and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is it,’” Chen recalled of being chosen to serve as a juror.
Chen’s account of the seven-week trial indicates that she was as close to the perfect, unbiased juror as you’ll find. She considers herself to be a “very logical person” and said she tends “to not speculate and take the instructions that are given.” But even her natural prudence was tested as she was presented with the strict guidelines of a juror: Do not read the papers, do not watch the news and do not discuss the case with anyone. And while deliberating, do not consider individuals (such as Gov. Chris Christie) who are not on trial. Finally, do not let the consequences of the verdict affect your deliberation.
“It was hard,” Chen said. “We’d been there for a long time watching everything and having been in the same room with Baroni and Kelly and seeing their family members.”
Kelly, who was Christie’s deputy chief of staff, and Baroni, who was deputy executive director of the NJ/NY Port Authority, were accused of carrying out the closure of two of three access lanes on the George Washington Bridge for five days in September 2013. David Wildstein, who worked with Baroni for the Port Authority, pleaded guilty in 2015 and cooperated with prosecutors, explaining that the lane closures were intended as payback to Fort Lee’s mayor for his refusal to support Christie’s re-election bid.
On Nov. 4, Chen and her fellow jurors found Kelly and Baroni guilty of seven counts including wire fraud, conspiracy and civil rights violations. Their offenses yield a maximum sentence of 20 years; sentencing will take place in February.
For a little over six weeks, Chen was a full-time juror. From 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., she fulfilled what she saw as an obligation to her state. “There were definitely people who wanted to be jurors,” she said. “There were people who were enthusiastic, but I just thought more that this would be my civic duty. I wasn’t enthusiastic, I wasn’t unenthusiastic, it was just what I needed to be doing at that moment.”
Although Chen felt a responsibility to play her part as a juror, this routine became draining. She and the other jurors deliberated in a “spartan” room with iPads each stocked with 649 pieces of evidence. Their deliberations were, according to Chen, “very serious in the sense that we understood the implication of the outcome, that these were two individuals and it was emotional at times and heated.”
During Chen’s six weeks at the Newark courthouse, she got to know Baroni and Kelly through their testimony, calling them “very real people.” She explained that this may have contributed to some of the jurors truly sensing the magnitude of the case. “You [could] see where other jurors were more emotionally invested rather than stepping back and viewing this from an objective sense,” Chen said.
“Don’t be afraid of jury duty,” she added. “Don’t try and get out of it. There’s a reason you’ve been called and you will get something out it. While it may be an inconvenience it’s very important because it’s our system of justice.”