Two potential jurors who expressed negative views of Bush administration officials were dismissed on the opening day of the perjury trial of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr.
The start of jury selection yesterday in the CIA leak case provided a potentially crucial victory for Mr. Libby’s defense attorneys. They were allowed to ask potential jurors in detail about their opinions of the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney and a group of high-profile reporters.
Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald objected repeatedly, but to no avail, that Mr. Libby’s attorneys were going beyond the more general opinion questions that U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton asked the entire jury pool when the proceedings began yesterday morning.
Mr. Fitzgerald complained that defense attorneys Theodore Wells and William Jeffress were turning jury selection into “an open-ended Rorschach [ink-blot] test into how you feel about the Bush administration, Vice President Cheney,” the Iraq war and various reporters. “They’re trying the case” in jury selection, he argued.
Judge Walton ruled that the defense attorneys had a right to know whether “somebody has a very negative attitude to the Bush administration.”
The defense faces a key challenge in picking a jury for this highly political case in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 9-to-1. Mr. Cheney is expected to be a defense witness.
Mr. Libby, who served as an adviser to President Bush and chief of staff to Mr. Cheney, is accused of lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters regarding the public disclosure of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s name. Former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, Mrs. Plame’s husband, in 2003 accused the administration of leaking his wife’s name in retaliation for his criticisms of intelligence used to justify the Iraq war.
Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who openly criticized the war, acknowledged three years later that he had inadvertently divulged Mrs. Plame’s identity. Mr. Armitage has not been charged.
The defense garnered its biggest success during extended questioning of a young financial analyst who had read about the case and said he didn’t have the highest opinion of Mr. Cheney and “if I had to rank people as to credibility, I wouldn’t put him at the top of the list.”
Mr. Wells, Mr. Fitzgerald and Judge Walton each tried repeatedly to determine whether the prospective juror could put those views aside in weighing trial evidence, but the financial analyst finally acknowledged that Mr. Cheney would have a strike against him in a credibility dispute with other witnesses. Judge Walton excused him for cause.
By comparison, one young woman swiftly sealed her own disposition by announcing at the start that she was “completely without objectivity” and “there is nothing [Bush administration officials] could say or do that would make me think anything positive about them.”
Mr. Libby broke into a half-smile and shot a glance at his wife in the first row of spectators as Judge Walton sent the woman home.
Six jurors were qualified to serve. Once that number reaches 37, the judge will allow attorneys to exercise their peremptory strikes. The defense has 12 such challenges and prosecutors have eight. Judge Walton intends to seat 12 jurors and four alternates.
Judge Walton said the trial should last four to six weeks.