Picking Scooter's Peers

Opening Day at Scooter Libby's Trial
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 17 2007 7:56 PM

Picking Scooter's Peers

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Scooter Libby. Click image to expand.
Scooter Libby

Scooter Libby's perjury and obstruction-of-justice case started today, but it was Dick Cheney and Tim Russert who were really on trial. Both men will be witnesses in the trial that stems from a federal investigation into Bush aides' leak of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame in 2003. Cheney, who was on Fox News Sunday this week attesting to Libby's honesty, will testify in support of his former chief of staff. Whereas Russert will testify for the prosecution, which will attempt to prove that the newsman's recollections are more accurate than Libby's about when and how Libby disclosed Plame's identity.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

During jury selection, the judge and defense counsel tried to ferret out whether the vice president's unpopularity would cause those weighing the case to discount his testimony or whether the star power of the Meet the Press host might lead jurors to believe anything he said. (Prosecutors, who benefit from these preconceptions, were not so worked up about probing them.)

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Given these lines of inquiry, it became pretty clear who was going to get out of jury duty. Pay attention to the world around you, and it was pretty likely you were going to get bounced. Libby's defense team honed in on anyone who might have developed views about the case beforehand, who might not like the war in Iraq, or who have any sympathy for the media figures who will be witnesses or figures in the case. Twenty-four members of the media (including me) were among the 80 figures listed by the judge as playing a role in the case. (Jurors who knew anyone on the list were asked to explain their relationship to see if it might damage their impartiality).

So, for instance, when a young financial analyst admitted he watched Meet the Press, it was pretty clear he was going to make it home for lunch. When he interrupted the defense counsel to stand up for the accuracy of bloggers, he might as well have been taunting them. "Some of them are pretty good," he said, to the cheers of bloggers who are—for the first time—formally a part of the press corps covering the case. (This will be a continuing theme of this trial, as those covering it wait to hear for their names, their book titles, or the names of their blog or news organization mentioned in court. When the fledgling Washington Examiner was mentioned by a juror who reads it on the subway commute, its correspondent gave—and got—huzzahs.)

An African-American woman found the quickest self-ejection response short of yelling fire. She indicated in her answers to the 38-item jury questionnaire that she could not be impartial. The judge called her in to ask why. "I am completely without objectivity," she said of her feelings for the Bush administration. "There is probably nothing they could say or do that would make me feel positively about them." A window in the ceiling opened, and she was levitated out of the chair.

The first shock of the case is that the know-it-alls are in the minority. Despite saturation media coverage, frantic blogging, and the personal crusade of Joe Wilson, who at times seemed to be going door–to-door to scare up sympathy for himself, there are still balanced humans roaming the streets who live their lives unscathed by news about the leak. These strange beings admitted to knowing nothing about the particulars of the case or this whole big thing about whether the Bush administration fabricated evidence about weapons of mass destruction to go to war.

"I'm a sports-section guy," said the first potential juror, a little embarrassed. There was a somewhat grim moment for the Medill School of Journalism when one of its graduates said that while she studied the case in school—including in an ethics class—she didn't remember much about it. Out of school and working for a health-care association, she'd really forgotten about the case. "I read Medicare documents all day and don't do a lot else," she said, justifying herself.

At times the day's exchanges sounded like an undergraduate college seminar. There were questions about the influence of the media, whether opinions live in the subconscious, and the nature of memory. The stability of human memory is central to Libby's defense. Fitzgerald claims Libby lied during the federal investigation, but Libby says he was so busy fighting the war on terror he just couldn't keep up with whom he talked to and when. "Have you ever had an instance where you thought you remembered something that turned out not to be the case?" Libby's lawyers asked several potential jurors. They all agreed they had. "I thought I put the car keys in my coat, and I find them in the freezer," said one woman.

Lawyers worked hard to press the jurors, but not too hard—they might, after all, have to appeal to them should they graduate to the jury box. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald may have won himself a friend for life when he asked a middle-aged woman if her children were young. "Oh, aren't you sweet," she said as if he'd served up a winning pickup line. She said her kids were college-age.

It was hard to get a real feel for the judge or defense and prosecuting lawyers, because the press had to watch the action from a far remove. We will be let in for the main trial, but we watched jury selection on a flat screen in a windowless room with walls laminated in the fake wood popular in recreation rooms across America in the 1970s.

Justice is blind and therefore does not decorate well.

We looked like the most boring patrons of the most boring sports bar in the world, deciphering the action on the screen that had been separated into quarters representing the four camera views in the courtroom. The judge was in the upper left, the witness in the upper right, the podium where defense or prosecution lawyers spoke took up the lower-left quadrant, and in the remaining space we saw the entire courtroom from such a distance that we could have been watching an Akron City Council meeting and not known the difference.

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