Nearly 100 potential jurors in Jefferson case given questionnaires, told to return Wednesday
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday June 09, 2009, 9:48 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- The corruption trial of former Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, began Tuesday with about 100 potential jurors filling out questionnaires in a process that Judge T.S. Ellis hopes will lead to the selection of 12 jurors and four alternatives today.
That would allow opening arguments to begin Thursday. Ellis told lawyers that there probably would not be court sessions on Friday or Monday, but after that he hoped to hold sessions five days a week.
He said he is not planning to sequester the jury.
The 16-count indictment against Jefferson alleges that he engaged in bribery, racketeering, money laundering and other crimes by using his influence as a member of Congress to broker business deals in Africa. He maintains his innocence.
Jefferson, 62, arrived at the courthouse with his wife, Andrea, and their five daughters, expressing confidence that his side of the case will finally be told.
"It is good to have my family with me, " Jefferson said. He said he feels "blessed" to have his family's backing as he faces a trial that could send him to prison for eight to 20 years.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers were expected to work late into the night reviewing the questionnaires so they could be ready today to question and challenge potential jurors.
Ellis, who did not release the list of questions, said the questionnaire was designed to help both sides select an impartial jury, not necessarily one that would favor either side.
The judge granted Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout, permission to show the questionnaires to a jury consultant, and allowed chief prosecutor Mark Lytle to use paralegals to help compile the answers from potential jurors.
Before the trial, Jefferson's attorneys had asked Ellis for a change of venue, accusing the Justice Department of trying the case in Virginia because it has a smaller pool of African-American jurors than there would be in either Washington, D.C., or New Orleans, where they argued the case should be heard. Ellis rejected the argument.
The pool of potential jurors Tuesday was overwhelmingly white with only a handful of African-Americans. Jefferson is an African-American Harvard-educated lawyer and nine-term member of Congress.
Addressing the jurors, who were identified publicly only by number and filled all but two rows of the courtroom, Ellis said it's important for them to remember that while Jefferson is accused of bribery, conspiracy to deny honest services, racketeering and violation of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, that none of the charges has been proved and that Jefferson must be presumed innocent until a verdict is reached.
When Ellis asked the defense team and Jefferson to stand so jurors could see whether they knew any of them, one juror raised her hand to say she had once introduced a client to Jefferson during a congressional hearing in New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina. The judge allowed her to remain among the potential jurors.
In asking the potential jurors whether any knew officials in the U.S. attorney's office or Justice Department, it was clear that federal government influence into suburban Virginia is strong.
One juror said that she had worked with Justice Department officials when working as a top aide to former Bush administration Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Another said he was a co-director of a federal panel on global warming, and, along with other panel members, was represented by the Justice Department in legal action filed against the efforts by some environmental groups.
Ellis eliminated only two potential jurors Tuesday: a man who worked in the FBI motor pool and a man who said his wife's college roommate worked as a clerk for one of the judges in the Alexandria courthouse. Ellis said that the clerk mentioned works for him.
Ellis, who has a reputation for being hard-nosed when it comes to corruption, showed his lighter side Tuesday. When a juror told him that he wasn't particularly close to his brother-in-law, who did work for the Justice Department, Ellis said he understood, volunteering that his brother-in-law probably would have said the same thing about him.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or 202.383.7861.