WASHINGTON -- A federal judge began on Tuesday to shape the jury that will decide whether Sen. Ted Stevens is guilty of lying about gifts on his annual Senate disclosure forms.
Jury selection is set to finish early this morning, but by the end of the day Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan had identified about 30 potential jurors. He asked 46 people whether they felt they could be impartial in a case about a public official and whether they knew any of the people who could testify as witnesses in the corruption case. He also asked many people if they thought they could be fair in deciding their verdict even if the defendant -- Stevens -- does not testify.
Just two potential jurors mentioned Stevens' home state. The father of Juror 1885 -- none of their names were used in open court -- was born in Alaska.
Juror 1632 had failed to respond to a written juror question asking what he thought about Alaska, so the judge asked him what came to mind.
"All I can say is, Alaska is cold," he said.
The jury pool in some ways showed what a small town Washington can be. Two jurors reported having direct contact with the judge in the past, one as a lawyer representing a telecommunications company, the other as a mother whose son was convicted of an unspecified crime. The lawyer remained on the panel, while the mother, who harbored ill feelings toward the court, did not.
And someone who might have watched jury selections in Anchorage would observe a surprising lack of diversity for cosmopolitan Washington. Anchorage jury pools often reflect the rich ethnic and racial diversity there, where more than 80 languages are the native tongues of students in the school district or their families. The Washington that showed up in Sullivan's courtroom was almost exclusively biracial -- African American and white. A single Asian -- a female lawyer -- was among the pool, along with a man who might have been Hispanic.
With government being the city's main industry, bureaucrats, clerks, technology workers, lawyers, lobbyists and one "signals analyst" for the Defense Department swelled the jury pool.
One of the lobbyists, Juror 2135, even had a connection to Stevens.
That juror is a corporate attorney with Verizon who practices before the FCC. The Senate Commerce Committee, which Stevens chaired until Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2006, has oversight of the FCC and Stevens has a lot to say about who its chairman will be. The juror said he met Stevens professionally and knew one of his long-term aides-turned-lobbyist, Lisa Sutherland.
Sutherland was listed Monday as a possible witness.
The lead prosecutor, Brenda Morris, asked the man if it would be a problem for his own career if he sat in judgment on a jury determining whether a powerful senator is guilty of a crime.
The man told the judge it would not be a problem and survived the first round of cuts.
Two of the potential jurors had experience with corruption investigations. Juror 511 said a relative, a judge in Pennsylvania, is now under investigation by the FBI for abuse of power. The juror said she had become jaded, but didn't know if that would help or hurt Stevens. She was cut.
Juror 1902 worked for Walter Fauntroy when he was the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate to Congress. She was subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating Fauntroy and remembered being frightened before she testified. In 1996, after leaving Congress, Fauntroy pleaded guilty to filing a false disclosure statement, the same violation Stevens is facing. Juror 1902 remained on the Stevens panel.
About 56 percent of Washington is African American and just over 53 percent of residents are women. By the end of Tuesday, the potential jurors in the pool of 30 or so included 13 black women.
ABSENCE MIGHT BE A MISTAKE
The jurors paraded quickly through the courtroom, as Stevens sat quietly at the defense table with his lawyers, a frown fixed on his face most of the day. During some breaks in the proceedings, he checked his Blackberry for e-mail messages in the airy modern atrium outside the courtroom. Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate, left the proceedings about 15 minutes early to go to the Capitol, where votes were scheduled.
The 84-year-old senator faces charges that he took more than $250,000 in labor, materials and furnishings from former oil services company Veco Corp. and Bill Allen, its former chief executive officer, and didn't report the gifts on his annual Senate disclosure forms. The senator is balancing his trial, his Senate duties and a tight re-election bid against his challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat.
Sullivan warned Stevens on Tuesday that it might not be the best idea to leave the courtroom during the first week of his corruption trial but that if he's needed in the Senate, the judge will explain his absence to jurors.
"I would be remiss if I didn't bring this to your attention," Sullivan told Stevens just before jury selection began. "I think it's possible that some jurors may think someone is too busy."
Stevens' lead attorney, Brendan Sullivan, wanted the judge to tell jurors that if Stevens is absent, it's because he's needed in the Senate to help address the looming financial crisis. The judge told him he'd say only that Stevens simply wouldn't be there, but that there was nothing wrong with his absence and the jurors shouldn't speculate about it.
LOBBYISTS IN THE POOL
Another lawyer/lobbyist failed to make the cut: a man with Republican ties who said he thought that he'd met Stevens before, and said he was worried that his political ties would make it difficult to overcome his bias in favor of the Alaska Republican senator. The lobbyist, who represents an association of home-based businesses such as Avon and Mary Kay cosmetics, described himself as "a political animal." He's never lobbied Stevens directly but probably has been at the same events, he told the judge.
"I think it would be hard for me to say I wouldn't have some inherent bias," the lobbyist told the judge.
A bias from the other side was held by Juror 86, who reported that his father was a lobbyist. He said he believed people in public office should be held to a higher standard, and had come to the conclusion that "Stevens is guilty." He also was struck from the pool.
The judge also let go another potential juror, a teacher who is a Christian Scientist and said she had religious objections to sitting in judgment on someone. He also dismissed several jurors who worked the night shift or were enrolled in college courses that conflict with the five-day-a-week trial schedule.
"We don't want you to miss any classes," the judge told one student.
Judge Sullivan dismissed another potential juror who had family ties to lawyers at the firm whose attorneys are representing Stevens.
OPENINGS ON THURSDAY
Most potential jurors remained in the pool, however, including a woman whom Stevens' defense team objected to for saying that she thought public officials are "supposed to serve the people ... and they're not above the law. They should always remember the people they're supposed to serve."
The judge asked her about "the fact that the senator has been indicted. ... Would you view that as wrongdoing on his part?"
"Do I feel like that means he's guilty? No," the woman said, a response that kept her in the pool.
Another juror, when he was asked about his response on a questionnaire to whether he'd ever witnessed a crime, had this to say: "If you see someone smoking marijuana at a party, that's a crime." The judge kept him in the pool.
Jury selection is expected to finish today. Opening statements in the trial are scheduled for Thursday morning.Complete Alaska election coverage
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By ERIKA BOLSTAD and RICHARD MAUER
Anchorage Daily News