Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Live from the Ted Stevens Trial--Day Two

September 23, 2008

Washington, D.C.--The number of people attending this trial is jumbo-sized.

Setting aside the jury (not yet selected), there are more than 40 people each day paid to show up at this trial.

A partial list would include the judge, his in-court assistant, the court reporter, the U.S. marshals, at least eight lawyers (and sometimes more than a dozen), other assistants for each side, and upwards of 20 journalists.

There are 12 lawyers on the distribution list for court documents. That's five for the prosecution, five for the defense, and two who apparently represent CH2M Hill, the conglomerate that bought VECO, the big oil-services company at the center of the charges against Stevens. This is way more attorneys than are involved on the average case, either criminal or civil.

Media abounds in this case. There are two pool reporters in the courtroom itself during jury selection and 15-20 in a media room on the ground floor.

The two pleasant federal employees running the media room tell me that it is an innovation the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia started for the well-publicized trial last year of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former Chief of Staff to Vice President Cheney. It’s really a sweet set-up. This is a nicely paneled windowless room on the giant courthouse’s ground floor with two large flat-screen TVs mounted on the wall. The media room has free wi-fi access and you can’t use laptops in the courtroom itself, so the media room is particularly attractive for reporters.

Outside the courthouse, the still photographers and TV camera operators hang around a sidewalk waiting for the defendant himself to come to and from court. During the craze of the arraignment of Sen. Stevens, the number of such "shooters" ran well into the dozens.

D.C. is a dressy town, and the journalists mostly wear sports jackets and ties (or the equivalent female wear) while the lawyers sport fancy suits. People of both genders seem to spend more time in hair salons than they do in Alaska: Haircuts are sharper and there appears to be more use of hair products.

There is a racial divide in this unusual city: The lawyers and journalists are almost all white, while the potential jurors are mostly black and the numerous court security personnel appear to be virtually all black.

It's the second day of jury selection, and the court session is mostly consumed by questioning of the jury pool. The jurors are questioned about whether they know any of approximately 200 potential witnesses. The list is not only very long for a criminal trial, it is highly diverse. The roster runs from the star-studded (four U.S. Senators--including Ted Kennedy and Stevens himself--plus former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and an ex-President of the World Bank) to the seedy (a Fairbanks strip club manager and a woman who has apparently alleged that VECO's long-time CEO Bill Allen--a key prosecution witness—had sex with her when she was underage).

The questioning is led by the judge, as is typical in federal court. (State court judges often let the attorneys take a much more commanding role in voir dire, the technical name for questioning the venire—the technical name for the pool of potential jurors.)

The Hon. Emmet G. Sullivan is the day's star. He combines just the right amounts of efficiency and folksiness to keep things moving along in a way that appears to leave the pool of jurors feeling about as good as possible about answering questions about their families, their jobs, and their views.

The head attorney for the defense is the white-haired Brendan Sullivan, the reportedly $1,000-per-hour advocate who leads a team of Williams & Connolly attorneys that has had as many as six lawyers sitting at the defense table today. Brendan Sullivan leads the follow-up questioning for the defense after the judge starts the ball rolling with each juror. He is busy at this--as one observer noted, Sullivan asked questions of every member of the venire except those who obviously had no chance to serve. (The first name is necessary—another observer grumbles that "There are too many Sullivans in this case." There are at least four with that surname, including the judge, the lead defense attorney, one of the prosecutors, and a court reporter.)

Stevens also sits at the defense table for most of the day, although he got permission from the judge to duck out of the trial to attend to his Congressional duties regarding the proposed financial bailout. In contrast to his lead lawyer Brendan Sullivan, Stevens sits quietly at the table for much of the day as a brooding omnipresence. Unlike some plugged-in criminal defendants, the constantly frowning Stevens does not seem to whisper to his lawyers about potential jurors, nor did he try to charm or smile at those who would decide his fate.

Leading the questioning for the prosecution is Brenda Morris, the principal deputy chief in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section. Morris is black (as is the judge). At its table, the prosecution goes with a total of three lawyers and the lead FBI agent on the Alaska public corruption probe.

The potential jurors are a cross-section of D.C., heavy on government employees, active and retired. They had to endure some admonishments and probing interrogations about whether they could be fair. The judge let some off and kept others that raised questions from the attorneys. Raising perhaps the most eyebrows was a member of the venire whose gender observers had difficulty in determining.

Jury selection has not finished as of the end of the day and will continue tomorrow. It looks likely that the judge will put off opening statement until Thursday morning, a day off schedule.
The courthouse itself houses the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and the building is grand and luxorious.

It's not just the media room that is sweet—the cafeteria offers such tasty fare as gumbo catfish, jerk chicken, and granola yoghurt topped with kiwi and blackberry.

One marbled, high-ceilinged hallway of the courthouse features a roster of judges serving on the local court, with the first one starting in 1800. That same long hallway has a collection of exhibits chronicling significant cases handled in the courts of District of Columbia: Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the attempted assassination of President Reagan, the breakup of AT&T.

Sen. Stevens is hounded by reporters, photographers, and camera operators wherever he goes in Washington, so he is not inclined to tarry in public space like this beautiful new courthouse. If he ever did walk slowly around the ground floor hallway, he might be inspired by one of those exhibits. It shows a big headline reading "Hoffa Acquitted of All Charges" and details how Edward Bennett Williams—the founder of Stevens' law firm—secured a complete acquittal for the embattled Teamsters leader when the day looked dark.

On the other hand, one of the eight other duals-sided exhibits might be a less favorable omen. Another exhibit was entitled "A Government of Laws, Not of Men" and carried the quotation "When public officials entrusted with government authority are accused of corruption, the independent federal judiciary is called upon to determine their guilt or innocence." One exhibit noted the trials involving Abscam, a wide-ranging federal sting investigation begun in 1978 that put several Members of Congress in jail for taking bribes.

Tomorrow should see the wrapping up of jury selection, but it’s already clear that the trial is off schedule in that opening statements will occur on Thursday (Day Four) as opposed to Wednesday.

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