- Associated Press - Monday, May 5, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A jury was seated Monday for the trial of the co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party, who is accused of trying to intimidate a state lawmaker - a trial that is expected to focus on politics, the Oklahoma Legislature and the First Amendment.

Eight women and four men were chosen in Oklahoma County District Court for the trial of Al Gerhart, who was charged in April 2013 with blackmail and computer crimes after he allegedly sent an email to a state senator about a measure pending in the Legislature that an affidavit says “was intended to threaten and intimidate him.”

Defense attorneys have argued that the email was political speech that is protected by the First Amendment. Gerhart, 55, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry penalties of up to five years in prison.

Prosecution and defense attorneys will give their opening statements Tuesday. Defense attorney Stephen Lee said no decision had been made about whether Gerhart will testify in his own defense.

Gerhart has acknowledged sending an email to Sen. Cliff Branan, the chairman of the Senate Energy, Telecommunication and Environment Committee, on March 26, 2013, urging the Republican from Oklahoma City to schedule a hearing on legislation favored by his activist conservative political group.

The email involved a House-passed measure that would have prohibited state organizations from following a United Nations plan to help cities and countries become more environmentally sustainable. Branan refused to give the bill a hearing, saying the legislation was based on a “fringe conspiracy” alleging that the U.N. wanted to use its Agenda 21 plan to encroach on the private property rights of Americans.

Among other things, the email demanded that Branan give the measure a hearing, “or I will make sure you regret not doing it.”

“I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don’t hear that this bill will be heard and passed,” the email said, according to court documents. “We will dig into your past, yoru family, your associates, and once we start on you there will be no end to it.”

Branan testified at a preliminary hearing in September that he was anxious after reading the email and felt threatened. He and at least one other state lawmaker, Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, are expected to testify at Gerhart’s trial.

“It just kind of got the hair up on the back of my neck,” Branan said. “It was not your normal email. He had woven family into the email. My two young children are out of bounds.”

Prosecution and defense attorneys hinted at the evidence jurors will hear while questioning them about their ability to be fair and impartial.

“How many of you have ever said: ‘I’m disgusted with politics?’” First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said. Several prospective jurors raised their hand.

Rowland also asked if they were interested in politics, identified with a particular political party and had ever used a telephone or email to communicate with a state lawmaker. Only one prospective juror who had served as a legislative chaplain said he had communicated with a lawmaker.

“I don’t follow politics a lot,” said another.

Rowland and Lee quizzed prospective jurors about their thoughts on the constitutional right of free speech.

“A person doesn’t deserve to lose their liberties just for expressing an opinion that others disagree with,” Lee said. “Our freedoms and our liberties, they’re what we value most in this nation.”

Lee asked jurors if they thought it was appropriate to apply pressure on lawmakers to achieve a political goal.

Rowland urged jurors to put politics and personalities aside when deliberating a verdict.

“They should be held accountable for their actions and not whether or not you like or dislike their politics,” he said.

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