Picking Scooter's Peers

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Jan. 18 2007 7:36 PM

Picking Scooter's Peers

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Jury selection in the Scooter Libby trial was supposed to end today, Thursday, but the process is taking forever. Today, jurors were being tossed out like bad fruit. Nine of the first 10 to come forward were thrown out. By the end of the day, the failure rate was more than 60 percent. One castaway was a felon. One woman said she would distrust any politician. And several said they just didn't like the Bush administration at all. "I just can't trust anything anyone from the Bush administration says," said one.

The judge asked another: "Do you have any idea about Mr. Libby's guilt or innocence?" "Guilty," said the prospective juror, as if she were already the foreman and the trial was over.

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.

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"You can see the clerk down the hall," said the judge.

A Washington Post reporter (yes, another one) said she would find it impossible to keep from talking about the case with her boyfriend, with whom she lives. "I don't talk to my wife," muttered the judge, continuing the trial's leitmotif of telling us more about the main character's spousal relations. "I'm a journalist," she said in her defense. "I'm a gossip; it's what we do." In the end, it wasn't her profession but her views about Dick Cheney that bounced her. "I don't trust him, and anyone associated with him would have to jump over a hurdle for me to think they are at all telling the truth."

Although at one point it seemed as if the dismissals were coming so fast they should have put the jurors onto a conveyor belt, the bulk of the delay came from the witnesses who showed some juror potential and thus spent extended periods of time in the witness box while lawyers questioned them.

Much of the day's philosophical jockeying between the lawyers focused on the Iraq war. Attorneys for Scooter Libby have grilled potential jurors on their political views. They want to expose anyone with a hint of anti-war or anti-administration sentiment who might not be able to give their man a fair shake.

Prosecutor Fitzgerald, on the other hand, through his questions, tried to show that even those jurors who thought the war was a mistake or those who thought intelligence had been mishandled could nevertheless evaluate the testimony fairly. Or, as one potential juror, an art curator, put it with a theatrical swirl of her hand: "One must suspend one's conclusions." The elderly woman with leonine white hair made it through the questioning. Charlie Rose's bookers should start working right now on getting her on the show after the trial is over.

Fitzgerald 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, like other jurors, seemed to want to serve, but was also struggling to be totally honest. "My personal feeling is the Iraq war was a tremendous, terrible mistake. It's quite a horrendous thing," she said. "Whether any one person or the administration is responsible for that is quite a complex question." She felt she could be fair but also confessed that her feelings about the administration could spill over into the trial. She too was dismissed.

At times, watching this questioning feels as though you're looking in on a doctor's exam. The first set of questions starts out general enough—what do you do, have you heard about the case—but  you know that by the end of this process, the patient will have been thoroughly worked over.

Before lunch, an African-American woman who worked in an unclassified post at the CIA spent a long time up on the examining table. Before she came to court, she discussed her jury service with the general counsel at the CIA, as all employees must do. The agency lawyer told her that the case was about Libby's outing of covert agent Valerie Plame. That's not what the case is about. The case is about whether Libby lied during the investigation into Plame's outing. Libby's lawyers worried that as a 19-year CIA employee, she might be biased against anyone seen to have harmed a co-worker.

The judge explained to her what the case was really about, and she said she understood, but then Libby's lawyer Ted Wells started asking questions again. He flipped her. "If she wasn't covert, then it wouldn't be an issue," she said. "If she didn't work for the CIA, we wouldn't be here." That was all that was needed. After the marathon questioning session, she was excused.

This questioning picks up again Monday. (The judge had previous commitments for tomorrow.) Opening arguments are now scheduled for Tuesday, but let's not get our hopes up. Ted Wells, who is doing most of the questioning for Libby, is methodical and patient. Though he has to go through the same litany of questions, he does it thoroughly with each juror. His counterpart, Patrick Fitzgerald, who has less to worry about, often just asks a few questions and stops. Wells continues to press. He's like a politician who never gets bored of giving the same stump speech, a tenacity that eventually caused his straight-laced opponent Fitzgerald to offer a little quip. After a brief recess, Wells and the defense team hadn't returned. Fitzgerald looked at the judge and then the empty defense table: "This may go faster, Judge."

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