60 are quizzed for Stewart jury

Opening arguments could begin as early as Monday, judge says

January 22, 2004|By Leon Lazaroff | Leon Lazaroff,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - An adoring fan and a man with an ambiguous interpretation of lying were among dozens of prospective jurors interviewed this week in the federal securities fraud trial of publishing entrepreneur Martha Stewart.

For a second day, Stewart and Peter E. Bacanovic, her former Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. stockbroker, sat in U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum's robing room to question the people expected by week's end to make up the 12-person jury in the much anticipated case. Opening statements, Cedarbaum said, could begin Monday.

A 208-page transcript of Tuesday's first day of jury questioning, released yesterday, offered a glimpse into the subtle strategies of jury selection - a cat-and-mouse game that has grown into a cottage industry in recent years.

While Cedarbaum is the only person who directly questions potential jurors, the government's lead prosecutor, Karen Patton Seymour, and Stewart's chief attorney, Robert Morvillo, often pressured the judge to pose follow-up questions, especially for jurors they apparently hope would be dismissed.

For anyone eager to be excused from jury duty - and in particular a trial expected to run for many weeks - simply admitting to having a bias was the best route out of the courthouse.

One person, an acknowledged Martha Stewart fan, enthusiastically volunteered that the domestic arts magnate was "a very strong and powerful role model for a lot of women in our society." Cedarbaum did not object when Seymour requested that the woman not be seated on the jury.

Another man told Cedarbaum that "lying to you might mean something different from lying to me. ... That doesn't necessarily mean that it's a lie." Over the objections of lawyers for both Stewart and Bacanovic, the man was asked to return for the next round of jury selection.

While common wisdom says Stewart's team would prefer white-collar women with some knowledge of the stock market, Joseph A. Rice, president of Jury Research Institute in Alamo, Calif., said simple stereotypes based on demographics don't always translate into favorable jurors.

"Those are very crude guidelines," Rice said, acknowledging that blue-collar males are assumed to be stronger jurors for the prosecution.

"If you just look at a person by obvious demographics, you'll use stereotypes and get burned. You have to go down a layer or two and ask if this is a person who likes to play by the rules, bend the rules, how aggressive are they in their own life, in their business?"

In all, about 33 possible jurors were interviewed Tuesday and 12 were asked to return.

Another 27 potential jurors were questioned yesterday. Prosecution and defense attorneys are allowed to use a certain number of challenges as the court whittles down the prospective jurors to 12 with four to six alternates.

Transcripts for yesterday's sessions were to be released today.

Stewart, 62, is charged with lying to federal officials during their investigation into allegations that she used insider information before deciding to sell 3,928 shares in ImClone Systems Inc., the biotech company owned by her friend Samuel D. Waksal.

On Dec. 28, 2001, the day after Stewart sold the shares, a negative report on an ImClone cancer drug sent the company's stock tumbling. Stewart saved about $51,000 by making the sale. Last year, Waksal began serving a prison term of seven years, three months after pleading guilty to perjury and securities fraud.

Stewart is also accused of securities fraud for attempting to offset the negative publicity about the sale in hopes that it would not affect the stock price of her own company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. Both Stewart and Bacanovic have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

If convicted on all five counts, which also includes obstruction of justice and conspiracy, Stewart could face a prison term of up to 30 years as well as a $1.25 million fine.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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