WASHINGTON -- With a jury seated Wednesday in the trial of Sen. Ted Stevens, opening statements and the first witnesses were set for this morning, lifting the curtain on what will be a historic courtroom drama.
Stevens, the first sitting senator to face a criminal trial since Sen. Harrison Williams, D-N.J., was convicted of bribery in 1981, will be tried by a jury of 11 women and five men, a panel that includes four alternates.
The jury is mainly a mix of white-collar professionals and bureaucrats, typical for this government-centric city. They'll have the job of determining whether Stevens, 84, who has represented Alaska since 1968, is guilty of seven counts of lying on his financial disclosure forms.
The government will begin its opening statement after the jurors are sworn and given preliminary instructions, expected at 9:30 a.m. Washington time, 5:30 a.m. in Alaska.
Stevens' lawyers also will have an opportunity to outline their defense, including shortcomings they hope to highlight in the government case against the senator.
Each side will have 75 minutes to introduce its case.
Stevens was charged in July with taking more than $250,000 in home repairs, labor and furnishings from the defunct oil-services company, Veco Corp., and Bill Allen, its former chief executive, and failing to report the gifts on his annual Senate disclosure forms. The gifts he's accused of accepting include renovations to his home that lifted it from its foundation, added a lower story, and doubled it in size.
Among the first witnesses jurors will hear from today is John Hess, a Veco engineer whose initials are on the renovation plans filed with the city of Anchorage's building department. Stevens called the home, an A-frame in the resort community of Girdwood, his "chalet" in correspondence that will likely be entered as evidence against him. Veco, according to the Stevens indictment, paid for the design work.
Another former Veco worker, Derek Awad, is scheduled to follow Hess.
The jury is made up of nine black women, three black men, two white women and two white men -- a mix that reflects the population of Washington, which is more than 56 percent African American.
It's a far different jury than Stevens likely would have faced in Alaska, had he been successful in moving the trial to his home state. In Anchorage, U.S. Census figures show the population is about 72 percent white, 6.5 percent black and about 8 percent Alaska Native.
The D.C. jury also is reflective of the city's professional class, where 39 percent of the population has at least a four-year college degree. In Anchorage, that number is closer to 29 percent.
Among the jurors chosen: a third-grade teacher, a receptionist for a trade association, a young man who works in the gift shop at a journalism museum, a man who oversees the operating rooms at a hospital, a woman who keeps the books for the National Guard, another woman who compiles criminal justice reports on wiretapping, and a man who works in drug counseling.
Half of the jurors previously served on juries, either in federal court or Washington, D.C., courts; one man said his only jury experience was as a grand juror.
The trial is expected to last four weeks, a fact not lost on the jurors.
"My principal won't be very happy," the third grade teacher told the judge. He offered to call the principal on her behalf.
ALLEN AS STAR WITNESS?
In some cases, the jurors were asked to disclose their political leanings. One, a recent college graduate, said he came from a very conservative Republican family whose parents are ardent Sarah Palin supporters. The man said he flirted with a Republican organization in his sophomore year in college, but has since moderated his views and recently went to Baltimore to see Barack Obama at a rally.
"Politics-wise, I have no idea where I stand -- I'm still trying to figure it out," he said.
The juror said he didn't know much about Stevens but had been listening to the radio as he drove to the courthouse Monday in response to his jury summons. He heard on the news that Stevens' trial was about to begin.
"It was like, weird, I was like, that's interesting," he told the court.
Stevens is balancing his trial, his Senate duties and a campaign thousands of miles away against Democratic challenger Mark Begich, Anchorage's mayor.
Allen, 71, is expected to be the star witness in Stevens' trial, the culmination of four years of inquiry into corruption in Alaska politics. Allen, who's pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska, has not yet been sentenced. But his courtroom testimony and secret recordings and videos of conversations were key to the Justice Department's seven successful convictions.