VOL. 123 | NO. 81 | Thursday, April 24, 2008
Law & The Courts
Jury Pool Expanded, Questions Thorough For Coming Ford Trial
By Bill Dries
The corruption trial of former Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Sr. will begin next month with a jury pool of 105 people. There will be lots of questions for the jury about their backgrounds and political views, but the questions won't be as direct as whether they are Republicans or Democrats or whom they have supported in what races.
U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays and attorneys on both sides of the case met last week to make final arrangements for the trial that begins May 12 with jury selection.
Ford is accused of taking bribes to vote for a billboard zoning matter that came before the City Council. The government's key witness is expected to be former County Commissioner Joe Cooper, who, as an informant for the FBI, was recording conversations and alleged payoffs with Ford as well as former council member Rickey Peete.
Peete resigned from the council and pleaded guilty in June. He is now serving a four year and three month prison sentence.
Because of the publicity surrounding the case and the high profile of the Ford family, the jury pool is larger than normal.
The prospective jurors who are called will fill out the lengthy questionnaire before they show up for opening day. The
defense and prosecution will have about a week to review the questionnaires, which span 17 pages and include nearly 90 questions.
They'll be asked if they have a problem with someone recording conversations without the knowledge of the other person. They'll be asked if they know Cooper or several other potential witnesses including developers Rusty Hyneman and William H. Thomas Jr.
Thomas' billboard request was at the center of the corruption case. Thomas is not charged with any wrongdoing. Neither is Hyneman.
Mays will do the void dire, or further questioning of jurors, with the attorneys passing their questions to him for his consideration.
"It's not going to be a very complicated trial," defense attorney Michael Scholl told Mays at Friday's conference.
Both sides agree it should take about a week.
But the written questions cross some sensitive lines in a process that can sometimes make prospective jurors feel like they are on trial. For instance, a question by Scholl asking what candidates those in the jury pool have supported with yard signs or campaign work is out. Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi objected and Mays agreed.
"It implies there's some sort of political test," Mays said. "These are questions that shouldn't be the basis for anyone being excluded anyway."
The most discussion was about a question that read, "Is it your opinion that matters dealing with alleged political or official corruption should be a crime?"
Scholl objected to the entire question.
"The statute is what the statute is. The law is what the law is," he argued.
Mays said the question, however, could lead to some other answers that might reveal other biases.
"If there's a bias there ... you kind of need to smoke it out," he said.
It will be smoked out with simpler wording both sides agreed to: "Should matters of official corruption be a crime?"
Questions about the Ford family specifically have been a staple of the trials of various family members over the decades.
Jurors in Harold Ford Sr.'s two bank fraud trials in the 1990s were asked if they could remain fair and objective despite his status as part of the city's best-known political family. He was acquitted of all charges in the second trial that followed an earlier mistrial. Harold Ford Sr. is Edmund Ford's brother.
Scholl was the attorney for former state Sen. John Ford, another brother, last year when Ford was tried and convicted of a bribery charge as part of the Tennessee Waltz corruption sting.
Prospective jurors in that trial, Scholl said, didn't hesitate to express their outrage at the overdue utility bills of Edmund Ford when they were asked about the Ford family in general. Scholl considered a motion to move the trial because of the inability to find an impartial jury.
"It came up constantly," Scholl said, despite the fact the overdue utility bills had nothing to do with John Ford's legal problems. "It's now died down. But it caused me to doubt whether that case should be tried in West Tennessee."
Ford ran up more than $16,000 in overdue utility bills for his Whitehaven business before eventually paying them. The overdue bills are not part of the case that goes to trial May 12, but the bills are the heart of another corruption case to be tried later that accuses Ford and former Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division President Joseph Lee of swapping overdue bills for political influence.
A question about whether jurors have negative feelings about the Ford family also was changed at the suggestion of Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Colthurst to whether jurors have positive or negative feelings about the Fords.