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RACKETEERING TRIAL In outburst, Traficant alleges bias



Published: Sat, February 9, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The trial will resume Monday with questions for more than 60 potential jurors.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- In his roller-coaster ride to pick a jury, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. accuses prosecutors of trying to seat an all-white panel and says the judge is going along with them.

The outburst took place Friday afternoon during the process of questioning prospective jurors for the 17th District congressman's racketeering trial, which began Tuesday.

The jury pool was drawn from the Cleveland area, which Traficant challenged several times.

Outside court, Traficant talked to reporters and wondered if Cleveland is 99 percent white. Of the 103 jurors drawn, he believes six are minorities.

The total number is unknown because race was not a question jurors had to answer on a 42-page questionnaire.

The congressman, standing on the courthouse steps, said whatever fear he had has turned to vigor. "I'm going to challenge these b-------," he said, leaning into microphones and looking dead-on into news cameras.

As he entered a car to leave, a man passing by shouted: "Good luck, Jimmy!"

Traficant's response was swift and loud: "Get on the jury!"

What he told judge: In court, Traficant accused Judge Lesley Brooks Wells of excluding minorities whom prosecutors wanted to be stricken.

"That's a pretty serious thing to say to me," Judge Wells said.

The prosecution team wanted to remove a 48-year-old dental assistant, who has in-laws in Youngstown and keeps up on what's happening.

Traficant, a hint of anger in his voice, rose to his feet to say the judge had spent too much time questioning the black woman from University Heights. The woman once lived in Youngstown and recalled always hearing about organized crime and remembers when Traficant served as Mahoning County sheriff in the early 1980s.

Judge Wells, after questioning the woman, struck her from the roster.

"I see an all-white jury that has been placed against me," Traficant said, still standing.

Judge Wells, her patience worn thin, said she hadn't seated a jury yet and had no idea of the racial composition so far.

"I object," Traficant said, still standing.

"Please be seated," the judge said firmly.

Chances for both sides: Each side had an opportunity to ask that certain potential jurors be stricken for cause, such as health reasons, religious beliefs or bias.

Earlier in the day's selection process, Traficant objected and voiced concern that the judge kept siding with prosecutors.

"Oh, Mr. Traficant, don't say things like that," Judge Wells said, not as angry as she would be later on.

After a short afternoon break, Traficant resumed his tirade. He said he sees "bias in this courtroom" and accused the prosecution team -- Craig S. Morford, Bernard A. Smith and Matthew B. Kall -- of trying to manipulate the selection process.

Morford reminded the court that Traficant dismissed a black male juror for cause.

The congressman had singled out prospective jurors to be struck who believed a defendant should prove his innocence and others who had ties to law enforcement, such as the FBI.

Exclusions: By noon Friday, 24 of the 103 pooled had been excused based on answers they provided on the questionnaire and another one who phoned in and couldn't show because of a sick child. By 4:40 p.m., of the 26 called in for oral questions as a follow-up to their written answers, 10 were eventually eliminated and the judge reserved ruling on two.

When the selection process resumes Monday morning, 65 prospective jurors will be questioned. There's also one who must let the court know if she can reschedule her March 8 surgery.

Motion filed: Before court began Friday, Traficant filed a motion about jury tampering and requested a hearing. He based his motion on a story The Vindicator published Wednesday that profiled prospective juror No. 12.

Traficant wanted to know if the reporter had interviewed the 20-year-old Conneaut janitor. The story was based on the man's answers on his questionnaire, which Judge Wells made available to the press.

The congressman seemed to think that only blank questionnaires would be made available to the press, even though Judge Wells had said in court that the completed forms would be placed in the press room.

Judge Wells reminded Traficant that he had opposed the government's motion for an anonymous jury and she had agreed with him to make their identities known.

No. 12, whom the government wanted to be removed, was called back for review because of certain answers on his questionnaire. He'd answered that he couldn't keep an open mind and somewhat agreed that a defendant should have to prove his innocence.

"Perhaps after he hears the evidence, his mind could be completely changed," Traficant had suggested. "No. 12 popped up in widespread news articles. I don't want him to be removed."

Wouldn't ask question: Under questioning by Judge Wells, No. 12 said he had not spoken to a reporter or given his questionnaire to a reporter. She refused to ask what Traficant wanted to be asked -- if No. 12 was aware that his questionnaire answers had appeared in the newspaper story.

The judge removed No. 12 from the jury pool based on responses about an open mind and a defendant's having to prove his innocence.

The judge had not ruled on Traficant's tampering motion when court ended Friday.

As prosecutors left, they said goodbye to Judge Wells and wished her a good weekend.

Traficant's last line to the prosecution team was: "Have a nice weekend, fellas."

meade@vindy.com




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