Sides Wade Into Jury Pool

Posted September 23, 2008 at 6:55pm

A federal judge bounced 16 potential jurors Tuesday from the trial of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) for reasons ranging from financial hardship to premature declarations of the senior lawmaker’s guilt.

Judge Emmet Sullivan, federal prosecutors and Stevens’ defense attorneys interviewed nearly four dozen prospective jurors for many hours and are scheduled to complete questioning would-be jurors this morning.

Opening arguments in the trial are now anticipated to begin Thursday morning.

Stevens faces seven counts of filing false financial statements to conceal the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts over an eight-year period. He has denied any wrongdoing.

During the daylong session Tuesday, individual jurors, identified only by an assigned number, were interviewed in turn by the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Stevens sat next to his attorneys, his hands in his lap, throughout much of the proceedings, occasionally conferring with attorney Brendan Sullivan.

Interviews of would-be jurors focused heavily on their responses to a 21-page questionnaire distributed Monday, which included basic queries on their employment and experience with the judicial system, as well as asking for their knowledge of Alaska and feelings about Congress.

In particular, many prospective jurors — the pool included about 40 percent men of any race and 40 percent black women — were asked about their responses to a question addressing their “overall opinion of the ethics and honesty of members of the United States Congress.”

Stevens’ attorney Rob Cary challenged one juror, who he said wrote in her questionnaire that “Politicians should be held to somewhat of a higher standard because they were elected to represent a body of people.”

The woman, identified as juror 1424, reiterated a similar message on the stand, stating: “They are not above the law, and they should in their capacity at all times … they should always remember the people they’re supposed to serve and represent.”

Federal prosecutor Brenda Morris asserted the juror should not be removed from the pool, stating: “I think she was being honest and candid with the court.”

Judge Sullivan echoed that sentiment and rejected Stevens’ motion to remove her from the pool.

Another potential jurist who was not challenged responded to the same question, stating that lawmakers are “hard workers.”

Asked about her response, she told the court: “When I worked at the Department of the Army, I processed a lot of correspondence … I noticed a lot of the Members of Congress did a lot to help their constituents as far as the military is concerned.”

Among those rejected was juror 1063, who identified himself as a lobbyist for the Direct Selling Association, which he described as representing the “Mary Kay and Avons of the world.”

The juror, who identified himself as a “political animal,” acknowledged that he had met Stevens “casually,” most likely at a Republican National Committee event.

“I would think there would be somewhat of a conflict in that I’m so active in the political process,” the juror said when asked about his impartiality, prompting prosecutors to ask for his removal.

Asked for his opinion on the case, the juror stated: “My opinion is from what I’ve seen on TV … [the charges] seem to be of a technical nature of a lack of reporting more than anything else. … More of a regulatory offense.”

Stevens’ attorneys sought unsuccessfully to retain the juror. “This man seems to be knowledgeable, opinionated like all people are opinionated. … He’s exactly the kind of thoughtful, honest juror who would follow the law, follow the instructions,” Brendan Sullivan said.

Two other jurors who acknowledged they also had pre-formed opinions about the case — both declared Stevens guilty — were also dismissed.

One person, juror 86, identified family members as lobbyists for Chevron Corp. and for the American Nuclear Energy Council.

“I just happen to have an extensive knowledge of how the process works and is supposed to work,” the juror said. But he went on to acknowledge: “I feel that I already have an opinion on the case. I feel that … positions of public trust are held to a higher standard than a standard person.”

The juror added that he is aware of two convictions that have stemmed from a federal investigation into state and federal corruption in Alaska. That investigation has netted eight convictions to date.

Another man, juror 1815, also expressed extensive knowledge about the case, explaining that he works for a company with a blog that has published dozens of articles on the Stevens investigation.

“I have a fairly strongly formed opinion in my mind already,” the man said. “My opinion is that Sen. Stevens is guilty of receiving benefits in return for political favors.” (Stevens has not in fact been charged with bribery in the case.)

Among the other jurors dismissed or rejected by the court were students who asserted a need to attend classes, a woman with religious objections and a man who said he is “suspicious” of the motivation of the prosecution.

The voir dire interviews are scheduled to continue this morning.

The court must assemble a group of 36 qualified jurors, at which point the pool will be narrowed to a 12-member jury and four alternates.

The government will be allowed eight objections to individual jurors, while the defense will be given 12 objections.

In addition, Judge Sullivan approved a motion Tuesday that allowed Stevens to be excused from appearing at his trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in the event of Senate votes.

He warned Stevens, however, that his absence could negatively influence jurors, noting: “Sometimes people reach the wrong impressions for the wrong reasons.”

Stevens’ attorney Brendan Sullivan noted that the Senator may only need to invoke the privilege this week, anticipating the Senate adjournment by this weekend.

Addressing the court, Stevens added: “I don’t intend to debate, only to vote.”

Judge Sullivan granted the motion, noting that he would inform the jury not to interpret Stevens absence, by stating: “There’s nothing inappropriate for the Senator not being here form time to time. Do not speculate on why he’s not here.”

But federal prosecutors proposed that the judge inform the jury only that Stevens has waived his appearance during any absences, with no further explanation.

In the meantime, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee began airing a television advertisement Tuesday, seeking to capitalize on the fact that Stevens is one of only 11 sitting Senators ever to be indicted.