The extensive questioning of prospective jurors in the drug and perjury trial of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, among the most rigorous ever in a local courtroom, has provided the best gauge yet of community sentiment on the case.
Resembling nothing so much as a sprawling, two-week focus group -- under oath -- the examination of 146 randomly chosen District residents has reinforced previous surveys' portraits of a city profoundly divided.
In some respects, however, a surprising unanimity emerged. In interview after interview on the witness stand, the panelists expressed discomfort and distaste for the FBI sting that drew the mayor into camera range with a crack pipe in his hands at the Vista Hotel. And in similar numbers -- young and old, male and female, white and black -- the panelists berated the media for what they saw as one-sidedness in coverage of the case.
With rare exceptions, the panelists pledged to decide the case on the evidence. More than half, 82, were judged qualified to do so. When 18 of their number are chosen tomorrow, the 12 jurors and six alternates may be impartial according to law, but they will bring firm opinions to the job.
The parade through Courtroom 2 looked like a broad cross section of Washington. There were lawyers and clerks, laborers and laborless, a plumber and a probation officer, an accountant and an architect and a librarian. They were articulate and incoherent, reluctant and eager, resentful and baffled and polite. Some were damned if they were going to say anything. Some were damned if they were going to shut up.
There was nothing abstract, for most of them, about the subjects at hand. Drugs had touched many of their lives and ruined some of them. Many had been the victims of crimes or had relatives who were locked up for committing them. Many felt allegiance to the defendant -- because of a job, an autograph, a long-remembered visit to their church.
No subject provoked more thought and passion than the FBI videotape of the mayor.
"What you've done is raise the question, 'Does the end justify the means?' " Richard Borden, who looked to be about 60, told Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard W. Roberts.
For some of the panelists -- a minority, but a large one -- the answer was clear.
"He got locked up in the hotel and the FBI set him up," said one elderly man. His last name was Oliver, and, like many others, his full name could not be heard from the gallery. "I just feel like, say if I was messing with drugs or something and you gave me some drugs, and then you turn around and locked me up . . . I think it would be unfair."
Roberts, striking a repeated prosecutorial theme, asked whether Oliver's views would be different if he learned that the sting was an attempt to verify years of allegations that the mayor had been buying and using drugs.
"Well, it still seems like entrapment," Oliver said. "He was set up."
Diane Walker, a legal secretary, emphasized that criminal behavior "will eventually surface" without undercover surveillance. "I just think patience should be used here," she said. "You lose your sense of security or privacy. I just think it's unfair."
Many panelists shared Walker's discomfort with the surreptitious cast of the operation. A young woman whose first name was Valerie called it "sneaky." Another, whose last name was Harris, called it "underhanded."
"A person should have some privacy, whether it's wrong or not," said Arthur Stanley. William Gladden, 31, said that if Barry "didn't know what was going on, then it was unfair." A woman whose name was inaudible declared that "anything that's done undercover is wrong. I think everything should be done out in the open."
Some of the sting's opponents, though, thought the emphasis on privacy made little sense.
"If you have a sting, you don't go and tell the person, 'We're having a sting,' who's going to be caught," Sara Rose said from the witness stand. Rose nevertheless disapproved of the operation, she said, "because you've spent a lot of taxpayers' money . . . and I don't make that much money."
Money, like privacy, was a regular motif.
"It just seemed like a relatively large amount of money relative to the charge," said Alex Moses, an accountant. "I believe there are other ways that public money could be better spent . . . like Head Start programs."
"It's a question of priorities, political priorities," said a woman named Price. "I have a personal problem with money spent in that regard."
For others on the panel, the most troubling part of the Vista sting was a sense that the government had fomented the very conduct it sought to punish.
"I think the government should not be in the business of inducing criminal behavior," said Sharon Edwards, 34. "I think in many cases the government is guilty of overreaching . . . . There is a level of inducement I find very uncomfortable."
Sterling Geary, expressing similar views, put them this way: "If you have someone who's vulnerable . . . even a person who never used drugs might try it if it was offered by a person who had influence over them . . . . It's like offering me a drink. I might not feel like a drink but I might say, 'Okay, I'll have one.' "
"He was trapped using cocaine with that lady," concurred George Nelson.
That lady -- Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore, a former girlfriend of Barry's who had been flown to Washington from Los Angeles by the FBI -- was the lightning rod for some jurors' disapproval.
"Undercover surveillance is all right as long as you don't take it beyond its extreme," said Ronald Brown, 36.
"What's that mean?" Roberts asked him.
"Extreme is to bring someone from across the country to deal with a problem we have right here," Brown replied.
"You have to trust in someone who's supposed to be a friend," said a man whose last name was Vincent. "She ain't no friend."
"I have ill feelings toward that person," said a woman in her forties whose name was never announced.
Without a doubt, there were supporters of the Vista sting, but they were distinctly in the minority in nine days of questioning.
"I can't say it was a setup," said Dwayne Forrest. "He is the mayor of the District of Columbia. That doesn't give him the right to go out and smoke crack or whatever he did, and I feel he should be punished if that's the case."
"If there's nothing going on, you're not going to get stung," said a woman whose first name was Judy. "As mayor, he should have known better," agreed John Jackson. Said Deborah Noel: "I just favor it because I think it helps the police and the FBI catch criminals."
For all the settled views among the jurors, a majority appeared to be unsure what they should think.
"When these methods are used to catch criminals, I am 100 percent for it," said Jackie Chism. "However, when they are used to harass people, I am opposed."
Kenneth Gaines, who looked to be in his thirties, saw a different distinction at work: "You know, like a small-time, you don't need undercover for that, but you know big-time operation, you need undercover for that."
"The time and expense should be commensurate with what they're trying to find out," said Stacy Hennessy, a lawyer. "I don't think it should be used when it's just trying to catch a single person for an act they're doing, unless it's threatening to the national security."
Undercover techniques, said Arthur Kennickell, speaking for many panelists, "may be necessary in certain circumstances, but it seems like something that can easily be abused."
A steady chorus of panelists found abuse by the media. Rarely asked directly, the panelists went out of their way to volunteer their skepticism and disdain for what they read and watch on television about the case.
"Nine-tenths of it is blown out of proportion," said Robert Corbett, 36. "I don't believe anything the media says regarding this incident."
Occasionally it served the prosecutors to egg them on. "Ever hear the saying, 'You can't believe everything you read in the paper'?" Roberts asked one panelist. But the prospective jurors needed little encouragement along those lines.
"I think the media hasn't treated him fairly," said Robin Downs. "It just seems that they've been besieging him . . . . The Washington Post doesn't decide whether he's innocent or guilty."
Geary, on the other hand, although shaky on the details, was unshakable in his faith in what he had heard. When Geary told the judge he had heard that the mayor had pleaded guilty to smoking crack, Jackson looked down sternly and said, "You know that is incorrect. That's what this trial is to ascertain."
"All right," Geary agreed. "But I still heard it on the news."
Jackson gave his best Johnny Carson double take. Geary will be on the qualified list tomorrow.