updated 1/12/2004 5:03:44 PM ET 2004-01-12T22:03:44

A judge told prospective jurors Monday in the hit-and-run trial of Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas O’Brien that they could be fair and impartial even if they had been exposed to the extensive media coverage the case has received.

The exception would be if the coverage had caused them to form an opinion they could not change, said Superior Court Judge Stephen Gerst, who last week denied a defense request to move the trial because of the coverage.

One hundred people filed into Gerst’s courtroom Monday as jury selection got under way. O’Brien was among those present.

Attorneys expect to spend up to a week selecting the 12 people who will hear O’Brien’s case. Testimony is scheduled to begin next week; the trial could last a month.

If he is convicted, O’Brien’s sentence could range from probation to nearly four years in prison.

Bishop resigns after accident
O’Brien, who led the Phoenix diocese’s nearly 480,000 Catholics for more than 20 years, resigned in mid-June after he was charged with leaving the scene of the accident that killed Jim Reed.

Police said Reed, 43, had been drinking and was jaywalking.

O’Brien, 68, told police that he thought he had hit a dog or a cat or that someone had thrown a rock at his car.

The accident came during a troubled period for the Diocese of Phoenix. Two weeks earlier, prosecutors announced that O’Brien had signed an immunity deal to spare him an indictment on charges of obstruction for protecting priests accused of child molestation. As part of the deal, O’Brien agreed that he would no longer handle abuse claims.

Some in the community called for O’Brien to resign in the abuse scandal, part of a nationwide onslaught of priest abuse allegations and cover-ups by higher-ups. O’Brien did not step down as head of the diocese until after the car accident.

The accident happened as O’Brien was headed home from a June 14 confirmation ceremony. It was dark when Reed crossed a street on his way to catch a bus about three miles from O’Brien’s home.

According to police, Reed was struck by two cars as he crossed in the middle of the block. Police said it appeared that O’Brien’s car hit first. Both cars drove off.

For the most part, the details surrounding the accident are undisputed. At the heart of the case is whether the bishop knew, or should have known, that he injured someone.

Prosecutors will likely point to the fact that the passenger’s side of O’Brien’s windshield was heavily damaged and police reports that say O’Brien contacted his assistant the day after about having his windshield repaired.

Defense attorneys were expected to argue that O’Brien did not know what he had hit or realize that he had hurt someone.

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