Judge Set a Torrid Pace for Trial

Posted October 22, 2008 at 6:45pm

All of the arguments and evidence in the criminal trial of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) have been exhausted, and so, too, have been most of the participants.

A weary and slightly cranky Judge Emmet Sullivan handed the case over to a jury of 10 African-Americans, one white woman and one Hispanic man.

[IMGCAP(1)]By 4 p.m., after less than four hours of deliberation, the jury asked the judge for permission to go home early, saying they were “stressed” and needed “a minute of clarity.”

Sullivan and the attorneys put on a mad sprint over the past several weeks to keep the trial moving and to avoid keeping the jury waiting.

Stevens is charged with seven counts of failing to report gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms, including about $250,000 worth of renovations on his Alaska home from Bill Allen, chief executive officer of the now-defunct oil-services firm VECO.

On Sunday alone, lawyers for the defense and the government filed nine substantive briefs, and the judge filed four orders on procedural matters.

The judge’s last order, filed at 8:06 p.m., stated that, “The Court is not persuaded by the parties’ respective proposed instructions” to the jury on how to assess the value of things Stevens received. “Accordingly, the Court will require the parties to conduct additional research on this issue. … [P]lease file your points and authorities on this issue by no later than 6:00 a.m. on [Monday] October 20, 2008.”

On Saturday, Sullivan held a nearly three-hour hearing on the jury instructions, with only two of Stevens’ attorneys and one prosecution lawyer present. “Where are all the other lawyers?” he joked. “Everyone else is out on the golf course?”

By Wednesday, the frantic pace had clearly taken its toll.

Sullivan planned to read 81 pages of legal instructions to the jury beginning at 9:30 a.m., but he called the attorneys into session at 9 to point out that there were still typos throughout the document, which the lawyers had prepared for the court.

“I don’t want to try this case again because something improper went back” in the jury instructions, Sullivan said, and he ordered both sides to sit down and reread every word to fix any additional errors.

“I know that everyone’s exhausted, including the court,” he said.

A little later he asked the defense and the prosecution if they objected to a particular paragraph in the instructions. The defense said they had no objection. The prosecution remained silent.

After a few moments, Sullivan turned to the prosecution table and said lightheartedly, “This side, wake up!”

While the court adjourned to reprint the documents, the lawyers slouched in their chairs. A prosecution attorney sat with his head down and his hand over his eyes. Stevens repeatedly rubbed his eyes or pulled on his chin.

The 84-year-old Stevens did manage to maintain his sense of humor. During one of the long breaks, he chatted with some supporters seated in the gallery. One man handed Stevens what appeared to be the new Alaska commemorative quarter. Stevens examined it, pocketed it and then said, “Do I have to report that?” His entourage cracked up.

When Sullivan finally began reading the instructions to the jury at about 10:40 a.m., the drone of legalese threatened to put several of them to sleep. Several heads dipped forward and then snapped back; more than one set of eyes blinked slowly, slowly and then remained shut for a little while.

When Sullivan wrapped up and said, “That’s all!,” laughter and relief spread through the jury box.

Before sending the jury to deliberate, Sullivan dismissed four previously selected alternates, leaving the Senator’s fate in the hands of a jury consisting mostly of minorities.

Stevens’ defense was clearly designed to play well before just such a jury. His star character witness was former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said the Senator’s reputation is “sterling.”

Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives — a cooperative of Native American corporations and other native entities that contract with the federal government — testified that her group never has trouble getting meetings with Stevens even though they sometimes competed with VECO for contracts.

She described the federation as being “something like the” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Stevens also called as one of the five character witnesses he was allowed Gwendolyn Sykes, an African-American former member of his staff who is now the chief financial officer at Yale University. She testified that among former Stevens staffers there is a recognition that “a lot of us wouldn’t be where we are today … if it wasn’t for Ted Stevens.”

But prosecutor Brenda Morris — who is African-American — also clearly understood her audience. On Tuesday she presented a closing argument that the defendant believed he was part of a privileged class and “knowingly and repeatedly violated the law because he believed he was above the law.”

The racial component of the case was not lost on Judge Sullivan — who is also African-American. Sullivan ordered both sides not to mention in their closing argument Powell’s endorsement last weekend of Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presidential bid. He also issued a pro forma jury instruction that jurors “should not be improperly influenced by anyone’s race, ethnic origin or gender.”

Shortly before noon, the judge told the jury, “The case is yours,” leaving the lawyers, the press, the court and Stevens with nothing to do but wait.