RICHMOND -- Around 6 p.m. today, jury selection in the federal corruption trial of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, was nearly complete. Twelve jurors were seated to hear the case and four alternates selected.
U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer thanked the prospective jurors for their service and joked that he was aware that many considered themselves lucky not to have been called.
“Pray for the rest of us,” Spencer joked.
Shortly after the jury was selected, one of the original 12, a woman, approached the bench to voice a concern and was later dismissed. She was replaced by a white male - the first alternate juror.
The jury consists of eight males and four females. Three jurors are black.
Earlier in the day, lawyers for both sides also disclosed lengthy lists of potential witnesses in the case.
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Judge James R. Spencer read the witness lists proffered by the prosecution and defense to see if any prospective jurors knew the witnesses, and had a potential connection that could make them ineligible to serve as one of the 12 jurors or four alternates chosen to decide the case.
Among the prominent defense witnesses who could be called were former Gov L. Douglas Wilder and current House Speaker William J. Howell R-Stafford.
RELATED: Prosecution witness list
RELATED: Defense witness list
The McDonnells' list of 121 witnesses also includes former cabinet officials, as well as former attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, Cuccinelli's former deputy Patricia West, former state senator and current Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle and former Executive Mansion butler Martin Townes.
McDonnell and his wife are both on the list of potential defense witnesses. The governor is expected to testify, but earlier in the proceedings, lawyers had said that Maureen would only testify on his behalf if their trials were separate.
The prosecution's list of 61 also includes former McDonnell administration officials, as well as McDonnell family members and children. In addition to the government's star witness, Jonnie Williams Sr. , prosecutors are also calling Williams' wife, Celeste, and other Williams family members.
Fifty-one people appear on the prosecution and defense lists.
During jury selection, Spencer methodically went through a list of general questions for the assembled jury pool.
Jurors were first asked whether they had met the McDonnells. One juror had met the former governor at a political event.
Spencer then asked jurors if they had served on prior juries, whether any had connections to law enforcement, as well as if any had backgrounds or connections in accounting, banking, or mortgage banking.
RELATED: Pdf of prosecution exhibit list
RELATED: Pdf of defense exhibit list
One man, who indicated a family connection in accounting, said he had "kin" in the field, "but he wasn't very good at it."
Spencer also asked if any potential jurors had been state employees or had relatives who had worked for the state.
Perhaps the most substantial response came when the judge asked if jurors had been charged or convicted of a crime or had family who fell into that category. Roughly a third of the remaining jury pool responded, with each juror approaching the bench to explain the circumstances in private to the judge, with lawyers from both sides listening in.
A number of jurors also identified themselves as potentially being physically unable to sit for the trial, which is expected to last five to six weeks.
A handful of jurors said they knew others in the jury pool, and three jurors were related. Nobody in the jury pool, however, said they owned stock in Star Scientific, the firm run by Williams.
The courtroom is packed with potential jurors and trial participants, as well as a handful of media who were allowed to stand and observe.
A second, overflow courtroom with an audio and video feed is holding other media and attendees, including some McDonnell family supporters.
The McDonnells arrived about 9 a.m. in advance of a scheduled 10 a.m. start at the U.S. Courthouse downtown. Court began about 10:20 a.m.
Maureen McDonnell entered first, walking silently while holding hands with her daughters, Rachel and Cailin, and wearing a black skirt suit. She embraced the family's priest inside the courthouse.
Her husband followed three minutes later, wearing a black suit and blue tie. He seemed to be in good spirits, greeting reporters with, "Good morning, how are you guys doing?" He also advised camera crews and photographers to "be careful" as they crowded around him.
McDonnell also said he is glad to finally "get the chance to present our defense in court."
"I got tremendous lawyers and faith in God and in the justice system."
-- Markus Schmidt, Jeff E. Schapiro and Jim Nolan
(This has been a breaking news update. Check back for more details as they become available. This morning's story from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is posted below.)
RICHMOND -- The first corruption trial of a governor in Virginia history is the result of an anonymous tip to a state fraud hotline about the alleged theft of food at the Executive Mansion that turned into a federal case.
Observers say that not since the 1807 treason trial of former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr or the 1867 arraignment of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis has Richmond hosted a legal and political spectacle to match that of United States of America v. Robert F. and Maureen G. McDonnell.
The six-week trial, which has a VIP cast of characters and the potential for drama, starts this morning with the crucial but normally mundane task of selecting a jury.
Witnesses could include McDonnell and other former if not current government and academic officials as well as former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a key player in the alleged corruption scheme.
The McDonnells were charged in a 14-count indictment in January alleging they conspired to use the governor’s office to aid Williams, who feted them with more than $165,000 in gifts, trips, golf outings, loans and cash payments.
If convicted, they could face decades in prison and millions of dollars in fines. If acquitted, they will still face staggering legal debts, which experts say could exceed $1 million for a defense that appears to have spared no expense.
Some 150 prospective jurors — normally there are roughly three dozen — are to appear at 10 a.m. in the seventh-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer, at the federal courthouse at 701 E. Broad St.
The jury pool will be drawn from the Richmond metropolitan area and from as far south and west as Mecklenburg County, as far east as King and Queen County, and as far north as Fredericksburg.
Lawyers familiar with the court but not involved in the case said they do not expect jury selection to take more than a day, though it could stretch into Tuesday or go quickly enough to allow time for opening statements from lawyers today.
After the pool assembles there will be a roll call and Spencer will ask the potential jurors questions, some likely supplied by lawyers on either or both sides.
Charles E. James Jr., a former assistant U.S. attorney now with Williams Mullen in Richmond, said generally the questions asked are routine ones such as whether the prospective jurors have any biases or if they know the parties involved or the attorneys.
James said he expects the process to take longer in this case because of the large size of the jury pool and the attention surrounding the case.
He said Spencer may ask the prospective jurors if they have strong feelings for or against the government or for or against the defendants such that they could not listen to the evidence and render an impartial verdict.
Jurors will answer many questions from their seats. If a response requires more questions, the juror may come up to Spencer’s bench with the lawyers to answer privately so as not to cause discomfort.
James said many of the potential jurors will have read, heard or seen media coverage of the allegations, and the jury selection process is going to require a few more follow-up questions than normal.
Barry J. Pollack, a Washington defense lawyer, said the questions are designed to determine whether each juror could be fair and impartial. He said there is no requirement that a juror need never have heard of the defendants or read anything about the case.
“The trick is separating people who have some familiarity with the case, but have an open mind, from those who have already formed an opinion about the case,” he said.
Of the prospective jurors not excused for cause after Spencer’s questioning, defense lawyers may “strike” an additional 16 for various discretionary reasons, and prosecutors may strike 10. In the end there will be 12 jurors and four alternates.
After jury selection, each side will make opening statements that will, among other things, cover what the lawyers believe will be the evidence and set the tone for the trial.
James said, “You’ll know at the end of the opening statements where the government thinks it’s strongest, where the government is weakest and how the defense is going to try to attack it.”
For instance, James said, “we talk about Jonnie Williams as potentially the strongest witness but my guess is the government will try to paint the picture that … this case doesn’t rise or fall on Jonnie Williams, he’s only a piece of the puzzle.”
“And of course the defense is going to try to say it rises or falls on him and his credibility, which we’re going to spend the next three weeks impugning,” he said.
James does not believe Williams will be the prosecution’s first witness. “The government will want to lay some groundwork before they go in with Jonnie Williams,” he said.
Pollack agrees. Presenting other evidence first could mean that by the time the jury hears from Williams — who has been granted immunity — some of his testimony will have been corroborated and his credibility bolstered, he said.
Once the government has finished its case, defense lawyers will likely ask Spencer to dismiss some or all of the 14 charges on the grounds insufficient evidence was presented to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Presuming Spencer denies all or some of the requests, the defense will then present its case. It is not clear whether Virginia’s former first couple will take the stand.
To date, defense attorneys have requested and received more than two dozen witness subpoenas for doctors, lawmakers, state officials and two former Virginia attorneys general — Jerry W. Kilgore, who represents Williams, and Ken Cuccinelli, who received $18,000 in gifts from Williams and Star Scientific, a dietary supplement company.
Defense attorneys have requested and received 30 blank subpoenas. They could call former governors or other well-known current or former public officials to testify about the gifts they received while in office, setting up encounters that could have political repercussions outside the courtroom.
Prosecutors contend the assistance the McDonnells gave Williams and his company — including setting up meetings with state officials, speaking at company events and hosting an Executive Mansion luncheon for the launch of Star’s primary product, Anatabloc — constitutes “official” acts performed in exchange for the $120,000 in loans and more than $45,000 in cash, jewelry, trips and gifts Williams gave the first family.
Many of the high-priced gifts the McDonnells solicited and received could be presented in court, including the designer dress that Williams bought for Maureen McDonnell during a New York City shopping spree and the Rolex watch that she insisted Williams buy and have inscribed so she could give it as a Christmas present to the governor.
Testimony is likely to shed more light on the activities and inner workings of the former first family when they lived in the Executive Mansion from January 2010 to January 2014.
Defense lawyers maintain that Williams received no special consideration for what he provided the McDonnells. They have accused the government of broadly interpreting federal bribery statutes to criminalize what is routine political conduct in Virginia.
Pollack said, “I would be surprised if even the McDonnells know at this point whether they will testify. It is always a risky proposition for the defendant in a criminal case to take the stand.
“I am sure that their attorneys are preparing them for their testimony in case they are needed,” Pollack said. But he said their attorneys likely will first want to see how the evidence looks and how many points the government seems to have scored.
Defense attorneys argued, unsuccessfully, for separating the trials of Bob and Maureen McDonnell. They maintained that the former first lady’s testimony would be critical to the former governor’s defense because it would establish that there was no conspiracy between the couple to aid Williams.
They said Maureen McDonnell would testify on her husband’s behalf if the trials were separate, but would not do so if they are tried jointly.
When the defense case concludes there will be closing arguments by both sides and Spencer will offer instructions on the law before the jury begins deliberations.
“This will be a well-tried case. The attorneys on both sides are experienced and highly skilled,” said Pollack, whose clients have included members of Congress.
“At the end of the day, the case will likely come down to the jury’s assessment of the credibility of Mr. Williams and, if they take the stand, their reaction to the McDonnells themselves.”
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