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Jury deliberates 'Desperate Housewives' trial

By Alan Duke, CNN
updated 6:34 PM EDT, Wed March 14, 2012
Actress Nicollette Sheridan is suing the creator-producer of her former show,
Actress Nicollette Sheridan is suing the creator-producer of her former show, "Desperate Housewives."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: 9 women, 3 men will decide if character Edie Britt's death was revenge against actress
  • Edie Britt died for "creative reasons" to surprise viewers, the defense argues
  • Actress Nicollette Sheridan accuses the series creator Marc Cherry of hitting her
  • Sheridan's lawyers accuse ABC, Cherry of covering up evidence

Los Angeles (CNN) -- A jury began deliberating Wednesday afternoon in actress Nicollette Sheridan's wrongful termination lawsuit against "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry.

The jury of nine women and three men is to decide whether Cherry killed off a Sheridan's character in retaliation for the actress complaining that he hit her during a rehearsal for the ABC comedy. A verdict requires the agreement of nine jurors.

Sheridan is asking for $5.7 million in damages from ABC and Cherry, although the actress was paid $4 million in her last year of work and is still earning royalties from her vested interest in the hit series.

Sheridan lawyer Mark Baute, in his closing Wednesday morning, told jurors they have two questions to answer: Did Cherry hit Sheridan on the head on September 24, 2008, or was it a "light tap," as the defense claims? And, did Cherry get ABC's approval to kill Sheridan's character in May 2008, as the defense claims, or was the decision made in December, after a human resources investigator cleared him in the slapping incident?

Baute called Cherry a "really obvious liar" who was covering up the real reason he killed off Edie Britt, the sassy blonde character Sheridan played for the show's first five seasons.

He accused other ABC employees of conspiring to cover up evidence that it was a revenge firing in order to protect a show that has earned over $1 billion in eight seasons.

Cherry and ABC claim they decided Britt would die in season five in May 2008, four months before the incident in which Cherry allegedly struck Sheridan.

Baute told jurors that there were "no notes, no calendar, no documents," supporting that claim, except for a writer assistant's notes that he accused the defense of fabricating and backdating.

Cherry and ABC executives testified they did not write e-mails because they wanted to keep the decision a secret.

"It's not a 'Navy SEAL Team Six how are we going to kill Osama bin Laden' decision," Baute told jurors, questioning the need for such secrecy.

Defense lawyer Adam Levin, in his closing, said the plaintiffs were asking jurors to accept a "complicated story of conspiracy," while the reality is much simpler.

"Mr. Cherry wanted to kill Edie Britt for creative reasons," to shock and surprise viewers and boost ratings, he said.

"'Desperate' is claiming that 10 good citizens of California conspired to get their stories straight and then took the stand, looked you in the eyes and lied," Levin said, noting that five of the 10 defense witnesses had "no incentive to lie" since they are no longer associated with ABC or the show.

Former ABC studio chief Mark Pedowitz, who now works for the rival CW network, testified that in May 2008 he approved Britt's killing since the character "had run its creative course," he said.

Former ABC network chief Steve McPherson, who no longer works in the entertainment industry, told jurors that he also approved the decision in May 2008, Levin said.

Levin also pointed to three former show writers who each testified of hearing the plan to kill off Britt in writer meetings in May and June 2008.

One former show writer called as a witness by Sheridan's lawyer testified that she did not hear about the plan until later in the year, after the hitting incident.

On Tuesday, the show's set construction coordinator testified that he received an e-mail that suggested a "conspiracy to cover up" information regarding Sheridan's lawsuit.

Michael Reinhart, who has supervised construction of the show's sets since it began eight years ago, told jurors that he called Baute on Sunday to alert him to his suspicions of a cover-up conspiracy because what he read in an e-mail "started gnawing at me" and he "began to lose sleep."

"It was my understanding that they were going to delete e-mails from the hard drives," Reinhart said about the e-mail he received in fall 2010, soon after Sheridan filed her lawsuit.

He read the e-mail and immediately deleted it because he believed it was not intended for him, he said.

"I honestly tried to put it out of my mind," he said, until this past weekend as he realized the Los Angeles trial was nearing an end.

What he read made him uncomfortable "because if the proposed actions were carried out, I felt it would create an imbalance between the parties in this case," he testified.

"I just wanted to make it equal for both sides," he said.

Reinhart said he feared he was committing "professional suicide" by revealing the e-mail, possibly ending any chances of a future job with ABC or its parent company, Disney. He was concerned "not just for me, but for my crew and the well-being of their families," he said.

But if he had not come forward, he "would've had to live with that doubt the rest of my life," he said.

Under cross-examination by Cherry's lawyer, Reinhart said Sheridan's lawyer suggested he could help him find a job if ABC fired him. Baute denied that outside the courtroom.

The defense later called Jean Zoeller, ABC's chief litigation lawyer, to testify that she sent memos to every employee connected to the case instructing them to save all their electronic documents. Asked if she asked anyone to delete e-mails, she said, "Absolutely not."

The defense won one victory Tuesday when the judge issued a directed verdict dismissing Sheridan's battery claim against Cherry. Sheridan's lawyer downplayed the significance of that decision, saying the damages could have only been $1 and jury deliberations will be simplified without it.

"You hit me, I complained and you fired me for it," Baute said, giving a thumbnail description of Sheridan's case.

The hit during a rehearsal was just "a light tap on the head" intended to demonstrate "a piece of physical humor" Cherry wanted Sheridan to perform, the defense said in opening statements.

Sheridan testified that Cherry hit her because he was frustrated during a discussion over her lines in a scene. "It was a nice wallop to my head" she said.

Five months and 11 episodes later, Cherry informed Sheridan that Britt would die during a show taping the next day, ending her five-year run on "Desperate Housewives."

Jurors must decide if the death of Sheridan's character and the end of her employment was illegal workplace retaliation or just a creative decision unconnected to the alleged battery incident.

ABC Entertainment is a defendant in the lawsuit because its executives allegedly failed to properly investigate Sheridan's accusation that Cherry hit her, and then agreed with his decision to fire her.

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