Video: Jury selection in CIA leak trial continues

updated 1/18/2007 1:33:22 PM ET 2007-01-18T18:33:22

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald sparred with defense attorneys Thursday over several potential jurors and their opinions of the Bush administration, a debate that further slowed jury selection in the perjury trial of former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton had hoped to have a jury seated by Thursday afternoon but legal wrangling has slowed the process. Attorneys for Libby have weeded the most outspoken critics of the Bush administration out of the jury pool.

Fitzgerald told Walton that that defense attorneys had crossed the line when they told jurors the case was political and about war policies.

"The jury will not be asked to render a verdict on the war or what they think of the war," Fitzgerald said.

Libby is accused of lying to investigators about what he told reporters regarding outed CIA operative Valerie Plame in 2003. Because Plame's husband was one of the administration's most outspoken critics, the trial is set to the backdrop of the war in Iraq and politics.

The makeup of the jury pool is a critical pretrial issue. Libby plans to tell jurors that despite what prosecutors say, he didn't lie to investigators. He says he was bogged down by national security issues and simply didn't remember the conversations about Plame correctly.

If jurors come to the trial already skeptical about the credibility of Libby or his former boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, attorneys say Libby won't get a fair trial.

Walton considered seven jurors and dismissed five people who said they could not be fair to the Bush administration or who were unsure.

Fitzgerald and defense attorneys spent more than 15 minutes Thursday morning arguing privately with U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton over whether to dismiss one potential juror, a management consultant. She said her feelings about the administration could spill over into the trial.The woman was ultimately dismissed but Fitzgerald's fight to keep her was his strongest effort yet during the politically charged hearings.

"My personal feeling is the Iraq war was a tremendous, terrible mistake. It's quite a horrendous thing," said one potential juror, a management consultant. "Whether any one person or the administration is responsible for that is quite a complex question."

Only one juror had been accepted into the potential jury pool Thursday by early afternoon and attorneys were debating whether to accept a woman who works for the CIA. Walton had hoped to have 36 qualified jurors by the end of the day. Attorneys for both sides can then eliminate jurors for any reason until 12 jurors and four alternates are seated.

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The Iraq factor
The makeup of the jury pool is a critical pretrial issue. Libby plans to tell jurors that despite what prosecutors say, he didn't lie to investigators. He says he was bogged down by national security issues and simply didn't remember the conversations about Plame correctly.

If jurors come to the trial already skeptical about the credibility of Libby or Cheney, attorneys say they won't get a fair trial.

By Thursday morning, 24 potential jurors were in the pool. Seven administration critics were allowed into the pool Wednesday after they said they could set their political feeling aside.

The panel so far
The jury who will decide Libby's fate is shaping up to be a group of highly educated, mostly white, middle-aged residents of Washington. Some of them have coincidentally worked, knew or lived in very close proximity to a few of the star witnesses in the case.

All but one of the 33 prospective jurors, who have been interviewed so far by both parties and presiding judge Reggie Walton, know at least some details about the leak of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity.  As of Thursday morning, 24 prospective jurors remained in the pool.  Nine had been dismissed, among those: two for financial hardship, one for difficulty with English and six for bias.

Those jurors that say they know about the case got their information from newspapers, radio, television or magazines.

A hotel sales rep said she heard about the case on the radio, "you don't forget a name like Scooter," she told the judge.

Among the selected, there's the software database manager whose wife works as a prosecutor for the Department of Justice and who counts the local U.S. attorney and a top official in Justice's criminal division as neighbors and friends.

Possibly the most bizarre member in the jury pool is a former Washington Post reporter. His former editor was now-Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward. The member says he recently lived across the street from NBC's Tim Russert, and has been invited to his home for neighborhood barbecues. Their sons, he said, have played basketball together in the ally that separates their houses. And interestingly, the now-freelance reporter has just published a book on the CIA and spying. Russert is the star prosecution witness in the Libby trial.

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The potential juror said he'd understand if the lawyers didn't believe he could be impartial as a juror, "If I were in your seats, I'd be skeptical."  But in an impassioned answer, he said he would use his years of journalistic experience to keep an open mind.  "I am not making a pitch to be on this jury,” he said, “but I just want to say I don't lean one way or the other in finding out the truth." 

The juror then noted that Libby "has a great arm" because one of his best friends plays in an over-40 football league him.  And, he noted, his connections go even further: he went to grade school with Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist who was highly critical of former Times reporter Judith Miller after some of Miller's reporting on the Iraq war came to light around the time of the Plame investigation. Miller is a witness for the prosecution.

Two of the 24 potential jurors who were accepted Wednesday by both parties have PHDs, several more had graduate degrees or were working on post graduate programs. One was a former jury foreman in a murder trial.

Judge Walton said 12-14 additional jurors from the pool will be questioned Thursday.  Once the group accepted by both sides reaches 36, then they will undergo a quick background check. After that, the defense will have 12 strikes, and the prosecution 6.  The final 16 jurors left will be seated, though only 12 will make the final decision on whether Libby is guilty or innocent of the five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements that he is charged.

Libby is accused of concealing his conversations about CIA officer Valerie Plame. Plame's name was leaked to the press in 2003 after her husband, Joseph Wilson, criticized the Bush administration's march to war.

Opening arguments are slated for Monday in a case expected to last four to six weeks.

NBC's Joel Seidman contributed to this story.

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