WASHINGTON - A federal judge began on Tuesday to shape the jury that will decide whether Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is guilty of lying about gifts on his annual Senate disclosure forms.
Jury selection is set to finish early this morning, and 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 thought they could be impartial in a case about a public official and whether they knew any of the people who could testify as witnesses. He also asked many people whether they thought they could be fair in deciding their verdict even if the defendant doesn't testify.
Stevens' home state came up only once, when the judge asked a potential juror about his lack of response to one of the sole open-ended questions on the juror questionnaire: What comes to mind when you think of Alaska?
"Alaska is cold," said the potential juror, who later was released for unrelated reasons. None of the potential jurors was identified by name in court.
For the most part, the pool mirrored the population and employment base that the jury is being drawn from: Washington, where an estimated 56 percent of the population is black and just over 53 percent of residents are women. By the end of the day, the potential jurors in the pool of 30 or so included an estimated 13 black women, four lawyers, several lobbyists and numerous information-technology professionals and federal government employees.
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 Senate, left the proceedings about 15 minutes early.
The 84-year-old senator faces charges that he took more than $250,000 in labor, materials and furnishings from a 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 Democratic challenger Mark Begich, Anchorage's mayor.
Sullivan warned Stevens on Tuesday that it might not be the best idea to leave the courtroom during the first week of his 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. But 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.
Opening statements in the trial are scheduled for Thursday morning.
The potential jurors included a lawyer for the telecommunications giant Verizon, who said he'd met Stevens before and had attended a meeting with one of the senator's former top staffers, Lisa Sutherland, who's now a lobbyist. The lawyer said he'd been involved in disputes between the company and the Federal Communications Commission, over which Stevens wielded tremendous clout when he served as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
The lead prosecutor, Brenda Morris, asked the Verizon employee whether it would be a problem for his career if he sat in judgment on a jury that was determining whether a powerful senator was guilty of a crime.
"Would that in any way impact your profession?" Morris asked. "Would it make you uncomfortable in regard to your profession?"
The man told the judge it wouldn't be a problem, and for now he remains in the pool of potential jurors.
The judge let go another potential juror, a teacher who's a Christian Scientist and who said she had religious objections to sitting in judgment on someone. He also dismissed several jurors who worked night shifts or were enrolled in college courses that conflict with the five-day-a-week trial schedule.
Judge Sullivan dismissed another potential juror who had family ties to lawyers at the firm whose attorneys are representing Stevens, and one who told the judge he thought it would be difficult to be fair because people in Stevens' position should be "held to a higher standard."
"I feel that I already have an opinion on the case. Two people from the oil company have already pled guilty to bribery," the man said. "I don't know how I would remove the things I've already read."