Attorneys in Kwame Kilpatrick's federal corruption trial want venue change

Legal teams cite fairness, safety as issues; Judge says she thinks it's premature

Published On: Sep 18 2012 09:48:25 AM EDT   Updated On: Sep 18 2012 05:40:43 PM EDT
DETROIT -

The first phase of jury selection has officially ended with 64 jurors qualified for peremptory challenges.

The exercise of peremptory challenges will reduce that number to the final 12 jurors and 6 alternates.

Defendants will get a total of 28 challenges or strikes against potential jurors and the government will get 14.

Judge Nancy Edmunds opened the afternoon session by mentioning that an issue had been raised at sidebar before the lunch recess. The media was not privy to the goings ons at sidebar. The judge mentioned that they would give one day to the issue raised. Briefs will be filed Thursday morning and the judge will hold a hearing on the motions filed Thursday afternoon. As a result, opening statements have now been pushed to Friday and witness testimony should start on Monday.

Seven jurors went through voir dire this afternoon and 2 were excused for hardship.

The jurors who qualified included a childcare operations supervisor, a laundry service employee, a PHD candidate, a woman who had no recollection of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick being elected or resigning and a bookkeeper.

Some of the jurors were at odds with their opinions. One juror referred to racism as "a cockroach that runs when the light turns on" while another felt that "race is something that people need to get over" and that she was tired of people playing "the race card."

But one juror just wanted to keep things light-hearted. When Jim Thomas, lawyer for Kwame Kilpatrick, mistakenly asked if the woman's domestic partner worked in law enforcement she said no her husband was a machinist. "Just don't tell him about my domestic partner, OK?"

Peremptory challenges begin tomorrow morning.

1: 45 p.m.

Four more jurors have made it through jury selection this morning, bringing the total pool number to 59. They include 2 white males, a white female and an African-American female.

There are currently 14 African-Americans amongst the selected potential jurors --3 men and 11 women.

Two jurors were excused. One juror was excused after group instruction when she recognized a name on the witness list. Another juror was excused for professional hardship when she revealed that her employer would only authorize 30 days for jury duty.

The first juror to make it through went unchallenged despite saying that he thought contractor Bobby Ferguson was guilty because of an 11 to 1 vote on the hung jury in the recent mistrial. Though now retired, he had also formerly dealt with Detroit contractors Walbridge whose CEO John Rakolta is expected to testify in the trial.

The other jurors through unchallenged included a retired male who has previously served on juries and a woman who had met former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick when receiving her certificate for her participation in the city's Ambassador Club.

The only juror challenged was a social worker who said she has seen African-American colleagues get stopped more often by police than their white co-workers. U.S. Attorney Michael Bullotta gave challenge for cause stating his concern with one of her answers in the questionnaire. The answer had to do with the juror's views on coercion to be complicit in a criminal act and that the prospect of losing one's job could be seen as a form of coercion.

Judge Edmunds denied challenge saying that the juror seemed thoughtful and perceptive enough to be able to weigh the evidence impartially.

Jury selection continues this afternoon.

10:45 a.m.

The delicate balance between defending the privacy of jurors and the media's right to exercise the First Amendment was passionately debated in Federal Judge Nancy Edmunds courtroom this morning.

Jim Thomas, defense lawyer for former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, had asked to address Judge Edmunds before jury selection continued this morning. Foremost on Mr. Thomas's mind was an article published Monday regarding the possible holdout juror in the recent Bobby Ferguson mistrial.

The incensed lawyer lashed out at the article saying he was troubled by its timing on the eve of jury selection and that it was "a clear shot across the bow at the credibility of jurors." Mr. Thomas also took issue with "vituperative" and vindictive reader comments that had appeared allegedly stating that Kwame Kilpatrick "needs a bullet-proof vest" and "should be lynched."

"I cannot deny this case has been ramped up bigger than I've ever seen and a circus-like atmosphere pervades," said Thomas.

Thomas questioned whether media coverage had infringed on the privacy of jurors, as well as his own.

"We have suffered the media listening at chamber doors on the 8th floor. I am feeling threatened. My privacy is being threatened," he said.

He concluded by saying that he was concerned at the defense's ability at having a fair trial and put a request on record for a change of venue for the trial.

Gerald Evelyn, a defense lawyer for Bobby Ferguson, joined Mr. Thomas on record in requesting a change of venue. Ferguson asked the court "to take direct action."

Evelyn stated his concern that jurors would be worried about the consequences to giving a guilty verdict.

"These jurors have to be concerned about consequences for them and their families," said Mr. Evelyn. "If I vote for Bobby Ferguson, they are going to kick my door down."

Evelyn pointed to race saying, "I'm mindful of the fact there was an African-American woman who was a centerpiece of the investigation."- a reference to the holdout juror from the article.

John Shea, lawyer for Bernard Kilpatrick, did not address the court except to join his colleagues in their concerns. John Minock, one of Victor Mercado's lawyers, said of the media "I'm a fan of the 1st amendment, I like the press. Unfortunately, stories don't always capture what really happened."

U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow told the court that they weren't prepared to respond fully to the change of venue request as it was the first they had heard of it but that he felt it was premature.

Judge Edmunds invited Herschel Fink, lawyer for the Free Press, and James Stewart, lawyer for the Detroit News, to address the court.

"What I've heard from lawyers is posturing and half-truths," said Mr. Fink.

Mr. Fink also pointed out that Kwame Kilpatrick had voluntarily exposed himself to media coverage when he spoke at the National Association of Black Journalists in August and in doing his book tour. He also felt that the Free Press "is very conscious of the potential effect of coverage" and that he thought "the paper has been very responsible."

Mr. Stewart of the Detroit News said, "This notion of juror intimidation is speculation and not based on anything that has happened in this jurisdiction."

Regarding the reader comments, he said that they are reviewed at the highest level but it sometimes takes time to take them down. He also stressed that "the Detroit News wants a fair case."

While agreeing that the media hadn't done the best job of self-censoring, Judge Edmunds stated that she found it premature to have a change of venue motion but "that she was mindful of jurors being impacted."

"I have done the best I can to protect privacy without trampling on the 1st Amendment," said Judge Edmunds.

Edmunds invited the media to self-edit more of what is published and said she would do additional juror voir dire. She also told defense that she would look at their motions carefully if they choose to file for change of venue.

The final stages of jury selection are currently under way.

About the author:

Alexandra Harland is a Princeton undergrad and has a masters degree in International affairs with Columbia. A Montreal native, she worked with the Daily Telegraph newspaper for a few years before transitioning to TV, when she worked at ABC News with Peter Jennings. Alexandra has also worked in newsrooms in both Detroit and Boston.