Jurors are very close - but not quite ready - to return a verdict in the federal case of four former Pilot employees accused of conspiring to cheat diesel fuel customers.
Jurors told the judge Thursday they are still undecided on one count facing one of the four employees, but have reached agreements on all others.
U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier issued what's known as an 'Allen Charge' in response -- basically telling jurors they need to keep working through a possible deadlock and return a decision on the remaining count.
Judges are cautious on issuing such a response because it's tricky when telling them what to do, so they need to use acceptable language to ensure their decision is not influenced.
If the jury continues to remain undecided it could force a partial verdict on all other decided counts, but the judge has not told them yet if they can deliver such a verdict.
The judge remained optimistic the trial would conclude today, saying he does not expect it to go into Friday and that a decision should be reached one way or another before the day is through.
The jurors have been working to reach a decision on this one count for more than 24 hours after they sent a note to the judge saying they had agreed on everything but one count regarding one defendant. They asked for further direction on how to proceed.
Collier responded a couple hours later after consulting with defense attorneys and the prosecution that they should go back and do their best.
It’s not uncommon for juries to disagree at times while deliberating, he said.
The panel started Feb. 7, working for a few hours. This week they have worked three full days.
A verdict was widely expected Wednesday afternoon.
The group must consider more than a dozen counts involving Mark Hazelwood, the former Pilot Flying J president, Scott Wombold, a former vice president, and Karen Mann and Heather Jones, who worked from Pilot headquarters in Bearden with salesmen in the field.
All are accused of conspiring to rip off some Pilot fuel customers by promising one rebate and actually paying another.
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The government alleges the scam amounted to at least $56 million, although Pilot ended up paying a $92 million penalty in 2014. The private fuel and truck stop giant has been cooperating with the government prosecution..
Fourteen former employees have pleaded guilty, and some of them testified at trial.
Wombold, Hazelwood and Jones also are charged with wire fraud. Hazelwood also is charged with witness tampering, and Wombold is charged with lying to federal agents.
Of all the defendants, only Mann faces a single count.
The government alleges the scam went on from at least 2008 until April 2013 when agents raided the headquarters.
Evidence has actually indicated the scheme started before 2008.
The jury did not specify which count and which person they are unable to reach a verdict on.
They also sought clarification on language regarding the wire fraud counts.
Collier referred them back to the specific pages in their instructions that address wire fraud.
Defense attorneys, after the judge informed them how close the jury had come, said they opposed release of a partial verdict.
The jury is not obliged to resolve their differences over the single count. The judge also cannot force them to vote one way or another.
Panels do occasionally hang on a charge.
“Considering the length of trial and the amount of time since we first started and the complexity of the case, they have not deliberated all that long,” Collier observed.
Jurors from the Chattanooga area began hearing proof in early November. The trial is being held in Chattanooga because of extensive pre-trial publicity in Knoxville.