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Monsanto Trial Begins Monday, But Only After Dozens of Jurors Excused

Opening statements are set to begin in San Francisco on Monday, July 9, in the case of a terminally ill man who says Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller caused his cancer.

Jury selection in the trial of DeWayne Johnson v. Monsanto Company was completed last week—but only after dozens of potential jurors were eliminated for having a negative opinion of the biotech company.

Johnson, a 49-year-old former school groundskeeper, is one of thousands of people who allege that exposure to Roundup caused their non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto knowingly put him at risk. He’s the first to go to trial, because California expedites trials for the terminally ill.

The two-and-a-half days of intense questioning of potential jurors was “long and tedious,” according to journalist Carey Gillam.

Gillam, who is also research director for the consumer watchdog group U.S. Right to Know, reported that many potential jurors were excused for having expressed bias or outright disdain for the biotech company.

But some potential jurors were eliminated for having either a history of cancer in their families, or for admitting to concerns about pesticides or other chemicals, or for simply wanting to eat “clean.”

In the end, seven men and five women from diverse backgrounds were selected to hear the case.

Monsanto to judge: ‘Please protect us from our own bad reputation’

Court proceeding began on June 25, with a plea from Monsanto attorneys to the judge to protect the company from its own bad reputation, Gillam reported. Monsanto’s legal team complained that jury questionnaires revealed that a number of potential jurors viewed Monsanto as “evil.”

Some potential jurors even said they believed the company had “killed people,” a Monsanto lawyer told the judge.

Gillam didn’t have a problem with the judge excusing those jurors. “My overwhelming impression was that Monsanto was right in telling the judge at the outset that many jurors held very negative feelings about the company,” she said in an email to Organic Consumers Association.

But did Monsanto go too far?

“After those jurors were removed Monsanto then honed in on people who expressed concerns about the safety of chemicals in general, and people who said they wanted to eat ‘clean,” Gillam said.

Attorneys for Monsanto argued that such jury members would “poison” the rest of the jury pool. But David Dickens, an attorney for plaintiff Johnson said, “Monsanto was wrongly looking to exclude roughly one-third of the jury pool based solely on questionnaires the prospective jurors filled out last week,” Gillam reports.

Got cancer? Go home!

Attorneys on both sides questioned potential jurors about a number of topics including their views on Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller and whether they avoided chemicals when dealing with weeds.

Jurors were also asked about instances of cancer in their families, whether they looked at food package labels when buying groceries and if they had any reservations about the potential for awarding large punitive damages against Monsanto.

One juror told the court, “I don’t like Monsanto, I think it’s an unethical company.” In her view, corporations have a long history of hiding or misrepresenting research when it comes to protecting products and their bottom line.

Another woman, a social media manager for a natural products company, expressed similar reservations, telling the court she views big brands like Monsanto as being “a little shady.” The woman also said that she had dealt extensively with cancer in her family.

“Indeed, many of the prospective jurors spoke of cancer in their families, and expressed sympathy for cancer victims,” reports Gillam:

“One potential juror, a cell biologist and a genetic engineer by training, said she thought she could be unbiased. She also has had cancer in her family, without a clear cause.

“Under questioning from Dickens, she said she is familiar with substances that cause cancer. As for her knowledge of Monsanto, she said she has studied the company’s genetic engineering of plants and the connections to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, and she’s read about concerns glyphosate causes cancer. ‘I’ve heard about Monsanto for a long time,’ she said.”

None of these jurors made the cut.

The judge told the 12 jurors who were seated to prepare to serve well into August, according to Gillam.

Follow Carey Gillam on Twitter for live updates on DeWayne Johnson v. Monsanto Company.

Julie Wilson is communications associate for the Organic Consumers Association. To keep up with news and alerts, sign up for OCA’s newsletter.