Jury Selection Begins for Governor’s Second Racketeering Trial
NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Jury selection began Monday for the racketeering retrial of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who said he’s ″looking for 12-zip this time,″ three months after a mistrial in which most jurors voted for acquittal.
Edwards, his brother Marion, and business associates James Wyllie Jr., Ron Falgout and Gus Mijalis are accused of racketeering and fraud stemming from a $10 million hospital investment venture. They are accused of illegally using their influence to obtain state certification for hospital and nursing home projects in which they held interests.
Fifty-two of the first 100 jury candidates raised their hands when U.S. District Judge Marcel Livaudais asked if being on the panel, which will be sequestered during the trial, would be too much of a hardship.
Livaudais, U.S. Attorney John Volz, chief defense counsel Mike Fawer and the other lawyers in the case began questioning the 52 individually in a back office. At midday, however, Livaudais began questioning jury candidates in open court to appease reporters who protested the closed-door proceedings.
By the end of the day, more than 24 had been excused for reasons ranging from health problems to conflicts with classes or jobs to the need to stay home and care for small children. The interviews were to continue Tuesday.
Before the trial began, Edwards said he was sure that a fair jury could be seated and predicted that he and his four co-defendants would be found innocent.
″I’m looking for 12-zip this time,″ Edwards told reporters. In the first trial, which ended with a hung jury on Dec. 18, only two jurors - and on some charges only one - voted to convict the governor.
During the first trial, which lasted 14 weeks, jurors went home at the end of the day. This time, Livaudais, at the insistence of prosecutors, ruled that jurors will be sequestered, confined to the courthouse or a hotel room, from the time they are sworn in.
Livaudais explained to potential jurors that their families could visit them on weekends, their phone calls would be monitored and their mail and reading materials would be censored to make sure nobody exerts any inappropriate influence on them.
Defense lawyers had objected strenuously to sequestration, saying it would make choosing a true cross-section of the population difficult or impossible.
Nevertheless, Edwards said Monday, ″I have confidence in this jury, whoever they may be, just like I had confidence in the last one.″
Edwards, who first served as governor from 1972 to 1980, acknowledged that before he took office again in March 1984 he made almost $2 million on the hospital deals. But he insisted the deals were legal and that he broke ties with the venture when he became governor.
Each defendant faces one count of violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The governor, lawyer Wyllie and Baton Rouge businessman Falgout each face an additional 45 counts of mail and wire fraud. Marion Edwards, an insurance agent, faces eight mail and wire fraud counts. Shreveport businessman Mijalis is charged with three mail fraud counts.
Each RICO count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, a $25,000 fine and forfeiture of all property acquired in the criminal enterprise. Each mail and wire fraud count carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Edwards on Monday criticized Volz for trying the case again.
″This is part of the system,″ Edwards said. ″The man who happens to be the U.S. attorney has the unbridled power to make this decision.″
The governor’s brother, in a statement, said he was afraid the pressures of a second trial would increase chances of a reappearance of his liver cancer ″which, beyond the shadow of any doubt, would be fatal.″
Livaudais has ruled that Marion Edwards’s health can be discussed as evidence in the second trial. Such discussion was allowed in the first trial, but prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to have it eliminated from the second trial.
″John Volz is taking my life in his hands and if the stress of this trial accelerates my cancer and proves fatal to me, my blood will be on his hands and he shall face his God and be judged accordingly, whenever and wherever this may occur,″ Marion Edwards said.