In Libby Trial, Big Names Make Jury Picks a Tall Order
Thursday, January 18, 2007
To see how small a town Washington really is, drop in on jury selection at the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, where so far nearly every juror candidate seems to have a connection to the players or events surrounding the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity.
There is the software database manager whose wife works as a prosecutor for the Justice Department, and who counts the local U.S. attorney and a top official in Justice's criminal division as neighbors and friends. A housecleaner who works at the Watergate and knows Condoleezza Rice, not by her title of secretary of state, but as the "lady who lives up on the fifth floor." And a former Washington Post reporter whose editor was now-Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward; he went to barbecues at the house of NBC's Tim Russert, a neighbor, and just published a book on the CIA and spying.
Such is the challenge as U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton tries to seat a jury of 12 peers for Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, in one of Washington's biggest trials in years.
It has always been difficult to select juries in Washington, where the pool is small compared with the number of trials, and half the people summoned to be jurors don't even show up. But the star power of the players in this case has complicated matters.
Libby is charged with lying to FBI agents and a grand jury investigating the disclosure of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity to the media in 2003, shortly after the Iraq war began. He is accused of fabricating a story to conceal the nature of his conversations with reporters and his role in a White House effort to discredit Plame's husband, a prominent critic of the invasion of Iraq.
Defense lawyers for Libby contend that he forgot the details and timing of those conversations amid the crush of his daily workload and believed he had heard about Plame from Russert. Only later, they say, did he remember that he had actually learned her identity from his boss, Cheney.
By the end of yesterday's session, Walton and lawyers for both sides had quizzed 33 potential jurors and excused nine. The 24 remaining in the pool, and others who will be questioned starting this morning, still could be struck by lawyers on either side. Walton said he wanted to complete the selection of 12 jurors and four alternates by the end of today. Jurors cannot be identified by name, under an order from the judge.
Members of the government and media elite are the key players and witnesses expected to be called in a case that will often focus on the administration's justification for war in Iraq. As the slow questioning of potential jurors in Courtroom 16 of the federal court wound through a second day yesterday, it became clear that those celebrities rub shoulders a lot with the regular folks in this 13-mile-wide city of 550,000.
One journalist, for instance, said she had met a reporter and an editor on the witness list, Matthew Cooper and Jay Carney of Time magazine, when they appeared repeatedly on a foreign-affairs television show she produces at Voice of America.
Another candidate, the former Post journalist, seemed to have a link to nearly every key player in the case. He had worked in the newspaper's Metro section, he said, where his editor was Woodward, a key defense witness. Until recently, he lived across an alley from Russert, a star witness for the prosecution. And he had gone to parties with The Post's Walter Pincus, another defense witness.
He said he would understand if the lawyers believed he couldn't be impartial, but he promised he would use his reporter training to sort through the facts fairly.
"If I were in your seats, I'd be skeptical," he said.