Lewinsky gained jurors' sympathy Handling of Clinton seemed more distant because of TV format

September 23, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For months we have known only the smallest details about them. Most are women. More than half are African-American. Generally, they are of middle age or older.

But without seeing a face or hearing a voice, the world this week is getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the federal grand jurors who have heard and helped shape the questioning of scores of witnesses since the Monica Lewinsky investigation began in January.

Their views came to light in transcripts released Monday by the ** House Judiciary Committee.

Few would envy them those tedious hours -- meeting at least twice a week for more than a year on an assignment that far surpasses the demands of most juries.

But they did get to pose questions to witnesses -- including the president and Lewinsky. With him, they were formal. With her, they clucked like mother hens.

During President Clinton's Aug. 17 testimony, their questions were relayed from the city's federal courthouse to the White House. Those questions, filtered through prosecutors, took on a sharp edge.

"The grand jurors want you to be more specific about the inappropriate conduct," Clinton was told.

"The grand jurors would like to know upon what basis, what legal basis, you are declining to answer more specific questions about this?"

One juror pointed out that Clinton had indicated a willingness to answer all grand jurors' questions, one prosecutor observed, as he tried to use the president's own words to box him in.

"They wanted to know whether you would be willing to stay beyond the four-hour period to, in fact, answer all their questions," Robert J. Bittman, deputy independent counsel, said the president.

After dodging the issue once, Clinton ultimately decided not to.

The jurors' reaction to the president seemed rather unsympathetic, said Sara Sun Beale, a professor of law at Duke University, and author of a book on grand juries -- particularly given their response when Lewinsky testified before the jurors in person three days later.

To him they posed rigid questions; to her they offered "a bouquet of good wishes."

"They didn't see the president up close and personal," Beale said.

Their questions to the president also might have acquired a toughness as they were passed through prosecutors, she said.

"I'm sure the prosecutors didn't make up those questions, but people translate things into their own words and I wouldn't be at all surprised if there was a spin or a twist."

By contrast, their questions and comments to Lewinsky -- contained among hundreds of pages of transcripts -- suggest not only curiosity and exasperation but a near parental concern and a large measure of empathy.

How could Lewinsky have thought she had a future with the president, who after all, was a married man, a juror asked, adding a brief lecture: "You're young. You're vibrant. I can't figure out why you keep going after things that aren't free, that aren't obtainable."

The jurors also appeared to be as squeamish as anybody as Lewinsky's testimony continued.

Asking her apologetically for details about one sexual encounter with the president, jurors offered suggestions and reassurance.

"You could close your eyes and talk," said one.

"We won't look at you," said another.

When it came time to verify whether a presidential cigar had been used during one encounter, Lewinsky simply said: "Yes."

"OK," a juror said. "I'd like to change the subject now."

As Lewinsky concluded her testimony, the panel assured her they had all made mistakes and were not there to judge her.

"Basically what we wanted to leave with, because this will probably be your last visit to us, I hope, I hope I'm not going to have to do this any more and I hope you won't have to come here any more," said the jury foreman. "But we wanted to offer you a bouquet of good wishes that include luck, success, happiness and blessing."

Such exchanges are unusual between grand jurors and witnesses, mostly because of the brief duration of most testimony, said Beale.

"I thought it was interesting that the grand jurors seemed to go out of their way to cheer her up and express support for her as an individual," Beale said.

The jury's parental expressions departed from the public's generally unsympathetic attitude toward Lewinsky, she added, and "seemed to reveal that the testimony had been hard on her."

The most easily drawn conclusion is that they were not blaming Lewinsky for the affair, Beale said. "They talked to her themselves. They saw her with their own eyes.

"People often ask what difference it makes if a group of lay people ask questions instead of just prosecutors. I think it's pretty clear they had a different response to her than the prosecutors had. It suggests they were making a more complicated judgment about the individuals involved."

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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