It was, U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn said, the biggest jury panel she'd ever had in her quilt-bedecked federal courtroom. Seventy men and women from the seven counties that supply potential jurors to the Dallas division of the Northern District of Texas completely filled the courtroom's gallery, relegating clerks, the courtroom artist and the press to the jury box.
Over the course of eight grueling hours Tuesday, the 70 would be whittled down, due to personal circumstances. Others didn't make the cut because of opinions, either personal or those of the lawyers representing the United States and the man federal prosecutors say is behind one of the biggest political corruption schemes in Dallas history, John Wiley Price.
Those who remained at the end of the day left with Lynn telling them to call the court's jury information system at 10 p.m., to find out whether they'd be spending one day at the federal court house, or as long as four months.
For the potential jurors, everything about Wednesday seemed miserable. Like any member of the public headed to the Earle Cabell Federal Building's courtrooms, they had to go through security twice, but they had to do it with their 69 new friends. Once they made it inside and Lynn greeted them with the usual platitudes about the virtue of jury service, they were prodded and badgered, sometimes with stupefying repetition, by four lawyers about anything they knew or might know about Price, their thoughts and opinions on the intricacies of the federal judicial process and, most of all, whether or not they could be fair, in the ways that prosecutors and defense lawyers separately deem jurors to be fair.
For Price, who's spent two-and-a-half years in limbo between indictment and trial, everything seemed to be business as usual. He was, as he often is, decked out in a stylish but poorly cut suit and a bow tie. As the day went on, and on, he sat placidly at the defense table, turned away from Lynn so he could look at the 12 people who will eventually decide whether he goes back to the commissioner's court or straight to federal prison. His co-defendant, Dapheny Fain, looked more nervous, but that's probably because she hasn't be through quite as many wars as the 66-year-old Price.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Walt Junker led off voir dire — Lynn emphasized to jurors that in Texas, the term is pronounced "vore dire" — by asking potential jurors how much they knew about Price's job on the Dallas County Commissioner's Court, the one he's charged with leveraging into almost a million dollars in bribes.
No one on the panel knew anything. He then asked whether or not anyone on the panel had seen Price speak at a church or at a political event. Again, no one had. Then, Junker, in a move that would come back to bite him a few minutes later, began picking out jurors individually. He asked them if they would need a smoking gun to convict Price, or if they could believe in circumstantial evidence. He asked if bad people could do good things and then brought up race and asked the jurors if they thought it would be an issue in Price's trial.
"I knew it was going to be a factor," juror number 67, a black lawyer, said, "when you started by calling on all African-American women."
Another juror, this one a white woman, told Junker, who tried telling the jury that the Price trial was going to have nothing to do with race, that she "believed that people of color are prosecuted more and incarcerated more [than white people] in our nation."
Junker also ran into trouble when he asked jurors how they would feel about trying Price when the people who bribed him wouldn't be on trial.
"I would wonder why the person wasn't tried," juror number 47 replied dryly when asked about evaluating potential testimony from unindicted individuals connected to Price.
Beyond his missteps, Junker indicated to jurors what they were in for. Much of the case against Price is document-based. There's no video, no wiretap evidence. It's going to be a slog for the lawyers, Lynn and the jurors to get through years' worth of documents and try to understand the story that they tell. Prosecutors say it's a years-long conspiracy by Price to sell influence to local business. To the defense, it's a different story entirely, one of informal business transactions between friends and activities that, even if they were illegal, happened so long ago that they aren't subject to criminal prosecution.
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Shirley Baccus-Lowell, Price's lead attorney, pressed jurors repeatedly on how the media they might have consumed about Price, which amounted to a molehill rather than a mountain, might influence how they viewed her client. She talked to them about limitations, and whether they would convict her client even if his crimes had occurred in the distant past. She asked a juror who'd talked about Blue Lives Matter in her jury questionnaire about the Black Lives Matter movement and tried to figure out who in the crowd might believe someone with a badge over a civilian. When Baccus-Lowell sat down, the proceedings finally livened up.
Christie Williams, part of the team representing Fain, asked jurors about the ways they might conduct business with friends or family — off paper and without a formal contract. She pushed the pool about whether the defense actually needed to prove anything at all, eventually prodding six jurors to admit that, were they to vote right now, they would find Price and Fain guilty, even though the prosecution hadn't yet proved its case.
As the jury wilted — they'd only had two short restroom breaks and 40 minutes for lunch, which were spent inside the courthouse, as Lynn decided to spring for catering — Lynn pushed attorneys on both sides to get jury selection done. There were more than enough eligible jurors in the panel brought in Tuesday, she said, to fill 12 seats without bringing in another panel on Wednesday.
Even though the jurors won't officially be seated until Thursday, that's exactly what Lynn got done, thanks to cutting 40 minutes from each side's allotted three hours for jury questioning. The United States of America v. John Wiley Price and Dapheny Fain continues Thursday morning at 9 a.m. with opening statements.