WASHINGTON – The slow and contentious selection of a jury to try the vice president's former chief of staff may foreshadow a perjury trial constantly interrupted by disputes over how much jurors should hear about the Bush administration's Iraq war policy.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton intends to finish picking 12 jurors and four alternates Monday in the case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. If the judge succeeds, the process will have taken twice as long as the judge originally expected.
Libby's lawyers, Theodore Wells and William Jeffress, have labored to keep opponents of the war and the administration off the jury. Libby, a former aide to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, is the highest-ranking member of the current Republican administration to face criminal charges.
The potential jurors are drawn from a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 9-to-1.
Defense lawyers asked every juror whether the administration lied about intelligence to push the nation into war in Iraq and whether administration officials are believable, particularly Cheney. He is to be a defense witness.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald objected repeatedly during the first three days that Wells and Jeffress were portraying this as a trial about politics and the war. Fitzgerald argued that "the jury will not be asked to render a verdict on the war or what they think of the war."
Defense questions were so political that one juror even volunteered that she had voted for Bush, Fitzgerald complained to the judge.
The prosecutor wants the trial to hew closely to the five felony counts against Libby: that Libby obstructed an investigation into the leaking of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity in 2003 and lied to the FBI and a grand jury about three conversations with reporters about her.
Plame's name and employer were disclosed in a newspaper column, attributed to two senior administration figures. The column by Robert Novak was published shortly after Plame's husband, ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused Bush of saying Iraq was trying to buy uranium for nuclear weapons long after the administration knew the story was untrue.
Walton said during pretrial hearings that he does not want the trial wandering far from the charges. But he responded to Fitzgerald's objections last week by saying the defense has a right to know if a potential juror "has a very negative attitude to the Bush administration."
So the judge gave Wells and Jeffress considerable latitude. He even allowed them to ask several potential jurors if they could assure the court their opposition to Bush's war policies would not subconsciously influence their deliberations.
As a result, more than once, questioning of a single juror took nearly an hour.
In these instances, a juror was asked five or six different ways each by the judge, prosecutor and defense team whether he could set aside his personal political views. Then that juror watched while the lawyers and judge argued about his answers in nonpublic bench conferences that ran nearly as long as the questioning. Finally, the juror was called back to answer similar questions multiple times, again by all three questioners.
In three days, 30 potential jurors were qualified and 19 were sent home.
On Monday, Walton wants to qualify six more and then let defense lawyers and prosecutors exercise their peremptory, or unexplained, strikes. The defense has 12 and prosecutors, eight.
The lawyers then would give opening statements on Tuesday.
Whatever other arguments over evidence occur, those jurors will hear that Wilson claimed administration officials leaked his wife's identity to punish him and scare other war critics in the intelligence agencies into silence.
They also will hear from the defense that whatever errors Libby made in describing his conversations with reporters in 2003 resulted from innocent memory failure as he was dealing with a wide array of issues involving the war and national security.