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Surprise witness testifies for Sheridan side at 'Housewives' trial

A construction coordinator for the 'Desperate Housewives' set says he got an email at work about a plan to wipe hard drives clean of information on the lawsuit. But he admits he may have misunderstood it.

March 14, 2012|By Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times
  • Actress Nicollette Sheridan, center, leaves the County Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Actress Nicollette Sheridan, center, leaves the County Courthouse in… (Christina House / For the…)

A trial pitting the creator of "Desperate Housewives" against a former leading lady on the ABC soap delivered jurors one final plot twist Tuesday in the form of a possible whistle-blower from within the show's ranks.

The last-minute witness, a construction coordinator responsible for building the show's Wisteria Lane sets, took the stand on behalf of actress Nicollette Sheridan and recounted receiving an email on his work computer that he said discussed a plan to wipe hard drives clean of information relevant to her wrongful termination lawsuit.

Michael Reinhart testified that he had no contact with the writers or actors on the show and believed he had been copied on the email in error. He said he immediately deleted it.

"I felt it wasn't intended for me; it wasn't my business," he said.

But, he told jurors, he remain disturbed by the message and contacted a lawyer for Sheridan on Sunday as her trial neared its end.

"I was trying to bring the truth out," he said.

Jurors had been scheduled to hear closing arguments in Sheridan's case against "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry and Touchstone Television Productions on Tuesday, and the unexpected testimony from Reinhart sent a ripple of excitement through the packed courtroom. Summations are scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Reinhart told Superior Court Judge Elizabeth White that the email had been "gnawing at" him and that he was losing sleep over what he had described to Sheridan's lawyer as "a definite conspiracy." But he acknowledged that he could not recall the specific language of the email, its sender or the other recipients. He said he remembered only Sheridan's name and certain words including "IT" "delete" and "hard drive."

Asked by a lawyer for Cherry and Touchstone, Adam Levin, if it was "possible you misunderstood the email," the witness replied, "Yes, it's possible."

Levin had argued strenuously against allowing Reinhart's testimony. After questioning him outside the presence of the jury, the attorney said he believed that the email was actually one of several memos in which a lawyer for ABC instructed employees to preserve all their electronic records for the case, not to destroy them.

White said it was up to the jury to decide the significance of Reinhart's testimony, but added, "I admit he appears to be confused."

Complicating his account was its tortured route into the courtroom. Reinhart left a voice mail on the office line of Sheridan's lead attorney Sunday afternoon describing the email and signing off, "There was definitely a conspiracy to cover up the correspondence … in regards to Nicollette."

Reinhart did not mention his name, but the lawyer, Marc Baute, tracked him down on his home phone Sunday night. Reinhart testified that after their conversation, he left his home to avoid a subpoena and subsequently spoke with his personal lawyer and tried to contact an attorney for Touchstone.

He said that he regretted describing the email as a "definite conspiracy" and that he was concerned about future employment for himself and his set-building team. Reinhart said that when he worried aloud to Baute about committing "professional suicide" by testifying against his employer, the attorney responded, "What if I get you a job if you testify?"

Outside the courtroom, Baute denied making the comment.

Both sides have forensic examiners trying to find the email on Reinhart's computer, but the judge said she would not stop the trial for the analysis.

When jurors do get the case, they will have one less issue to decide. The judge threw out Sheridan's claim of battery over an on-set incident in which the actress said Cherry struck her. White said there was not enough evidence to support the claim.

Jurors are still to decide whether Cherry's decision to kill off Sheridan's character, Edie Britt, was retaliation for her allegation against him.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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