Facing charges that he violated campaign finance laws, former Gov. John Rowland’s defense team and prosecutors began vetting potential jurors Tuesday for a trial set to begin next month.
Rowland, who previously served 10 months in federal prison on a conspiracy charge after resigning the governor’s office in 2004, is facing charges relating to consulting work he performed for Lisa Wilson-Foley, who was a candidate in the 5th Congressional District in 2012.
That work and Rowland’s $35,000 compensation weren’t reported to election regulators. The charges also stem from unsuccessful attempts by the former governor to engage another candidate, Mark Greenberg, in similar scheme in 2009.
A pool of 134 potential jurors were brought in Tuesday for the beginning of the jury selection process. Next Wednesday, 12 jurors and four alternate jurors are expected to be chosen for the trial, which is scheduled to begin on Sept. 3.
Rowland’s legal team, led by attorney Reid Weingarten, has sought special considerations in the jury selection process. They have argued the level of publicity surrounding the case threatens the former governor’s right to a fair trial.
“Our system of justice depends upon trial in the courtroom, not in the media. That principle is under threat here. Mr. Rowland has been the subject of an exceptional amount of pre-trial publicity, much of which discusses Mr. Rowland’s past conviction and assumes Mr. Rowland is guilty of the charges currently lodged against him,” they wrote in court documents.
Judge Janet Bond Arterton has granted some additional jury screening tools to the defense team, but not all the considerations they requested.
Arterton has permitted the use of juror questionnaires and the limited use of individualized questioning of jurors in private near the judge’s bench.
In an editorial published last month in the New Haven Register, defense attorney Norm Pattis questioned this use of what’s called “sequestered voir dire.” The process gives Rowland’s attorneys a chance to question jurors out of earshot from each other. It helps to negate the risk that one potential juror with an opinion of Rowland will “poison” the rest of the jurors with no opinion, Pattis wrote.
“Secret sidebar voir dire is a common practice in the Connecticut federal courts. I wonder if it is lawful, and I wonder why the state’s press corps isn’t up in arms about it,” he wrote. “What about the public’s and the press’ right to attend, and observe the trial? Watching judge, lawyers and potential jurors lip synch isn’t meaningful.”
Arterton has rejected other requests from Rowland’s lawyers, including a call for more chances than a typical defendant to reject jurors without stating a reason. Attorneys are typically permitted to dismiss 10 potential jurors during selection without explaining why. Rowland’s lawyers wanted five additional dismissals.
Prosecutors called the request unreasonable and noted that lawyers for a man charged with helping to plan the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were awarded fewer juror challenges.
Arterton did not grant the additional dismissals, but Rowland’s lawyers signaled that they may make the request again, now that jury selection has begun.
“We believe that, once jury selection is under way, the strong need for additional peremptory challenges will be evident,” they wrote in court documents. “And, as demonstrated by Mr. Rowland’s opening brief, courts retain the inherent power to allow for additional peremptory challenges to combat pre-trial publicity.”