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 today in the case against I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. If the judge succeeds, the process will have taken twice as long as he originally expected.
Mr. Libby’s attorneys, Theodore Wells and William Jeffress, have labored to keep opponents of the war and the administration off the jury. Mr. Libby is the highest-ranking member of the current 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 attorneys asked every juror whether the administration lied about intelligence to push the nation into war in Iraq and whether administration officials are believable, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, who is to be a defense witness.
Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald objected repeatedly during the first three days that Mr. Wells and Mr. Jeffress were portraying this as a trial about politics and the war. Mr. 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 Mr. Bush, Mr. Fitzgerald complained to the judge.
The prosecutor wants the trial to hew closely to the five felony counts against Mr. Libby: that Mr. 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.
Mrs. 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 Mrs. Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, accused Mr. Bush of saying Iraq was trying to buy uranium yellowcake for nuclear weapons, contrary to a report Mr. Wilson had made after a visit to Niger.
In three days, 30 potential jurors were qualified and 19 were sent home.
Judge Walton wants to qualify six more today and then let defense attorneys and prosecutors exercise their peremptory, or unexplained, strikes. The defense has 12, and prosecutors have eight. The lawyers then would give opening statements tomorrow.