U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens and defense lawyers for Mayor Marion Barry are negotiating a possible plea agreement that could resolve the Mayor's drug and perjury case, but both sides indicated yesterday that they were not close to an agreement.
As Barry and Stephens prepare for the scheduled Monday start of the mayor's trial on drug and perjury charges, sources familiar with the discussions said the talks are focused on one predominant issue: a search for a charge or set of charges to which Barry would plead guilty in return for prosecutors agreeing to dismiss the remainder of the 14-count indictment.
Sources who have spoken to Barry in recent days said the mayor is prepared to agree not to seek reelection as part of a possible plea, but at this time remains adamant about not resigning the office he has held since 1979. As late as Tuesday, Barry said in an interview that he would "never resign this office."
Stephens last night disputed an Associated Press report that Barry's resignation was an essential component of any agreement that prosecutors would endorse. The U.S. attorney said through a spokeswoman that "Mr. Barry's resignation is irrelevant to the prosecution of this case."
Close associates of the mayor also said he is resisting pleading to one of the three felony charges against him because doing so could expose him to a prison sentence and the loss of his office. The 14 counts on which Barry has been indicted are 10 misdemeanor counts of cocaine possession, three felony counts of lying under oath to a grand jury and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to possess cocaine.
In the current talks, it is unclear whether Stephens told the mayor's lawyers that he would accept only a plea to a felony count or a plea to one or more misdemeanors, a possibility that Barry advisers say would be far more palatable to the mayor.
Barry, speaking privately to his Cabinet yesterday at a luncheon meeting at the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, asked for the officials' prayers in the days ahead, as he weighs his legal and political options.
While making no specific mention of the trial, Barry "said he hopes everybody's praying for him," said Mark H. Levitt, the mayor's senior adviser on labor relations.
Another lunch guest said that although Barry seemed in an "up" mood, the mayor also "said he was scared."
"In a way, he said it was the best of times and the worst of times -- the best of times of times because he was alive, the worst because of the trial," said the Cabinet member.
Earlier yesterday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson held the last pretrial hearing in Barry's case and made several revisions to a lengthy questionnaire that 250 prospective jurors will be asked to complete on Monday, when jury selection is scheduled to begin.
The questions cover a range of issues, including each prospective juror's drug use, political affiliation, voting history and religious beliefs. Half of the prospective jurors will complete the questionnaire during the morning session and half will fill it out during the afternoon.
On Tuesday, Jackson is expected to call 50 of the jurors to the courtroom for individual questioning. Another 50 will be called Wednesday and each day until all 250 have been questioned. At that point, the judge will allow prosecutors and defense attorneys to challenge prospective jurors.
Stephens and Barry could reach a plea agreement at virtually any point during the trial, in the early stages when the jury will be impaneled or even weeks later when testimony is being heard.
Several sources close to Barry offered sometimes contradictory views about the mayor's willingness to consider entering a guilty plea as part of an agreement with Stephens.
Two associates described the mayor as being "committed" to going to trial, while several other persons said they believed that a plea at this point was all but unavoidable. One senior administration official said that if any plea is to come, it would be in the first several days of the trial, while the jury is being selected.
In recent days, sources familiar with the investigation have said that no negotiations had occurred. Talking to reporters after yesterday's hearing, Stephens softened that stand, saying only that he had no comment about reports of plea negotiations. In addition, Stephens indicated that there was still room between the two sides, declaring that he is ready for the trial.
R. Kenneth Mundy, one of the mayor's lawyers, also declined to comment about reports of negotiations. Instead, Mundy criticized The Washington Post and other local media for what he called "biased" reporting that favored Stephens.
"I think we have a very prejudiced press here," Mundy said. "I don't say that racially, but I think we have a very biased press, editorially and in their commentary. There has not been one single, solitary, editorial commentary in print, electronic or otherwise from the general media here" favorable to Barry.