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Federal judge bars public, press from Louisiana corruption trial

By The Associated Press
09.19.00
Gov. Edwin Edwards

BATON ROUGE, La. — The federal corruption trial of former Gov. Edwin Edwards and Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown was expected to continue today just the way it started, slowly and quietly.

Jury selection stopped late yesterday evening with no jurors seated and the courtroom cleared of spectators and reporters.

"Long and slow, long and slow," Brown said during the lunch break yesterday. And at the end of the day he warned, "All day tomorrow."

U.S. District Judge Edith Brown Clement cleared the courtroom and later denied motions by media lawyers to either let the public back in or delay jury selection until the matter could be heard by a higher court.

The only hint at her reasoning was one sentence accompanying her denial of the motion for a delay: "Follow-up questioning deals with potential bias, which is conducted outside the presence of the public."

Attorneys representing the media outlets have appealed Clement's decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

An anonymous jury is to be seated in the case, but it was not clear whether Clement intended to keep the courtroom closed throughout jury selection.

The motion filed by the media outlets with the 5th Circuit says no precedent exists for the judge's actions, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate reported today. The Advocate is one of the organizations appealing Clement's order.

According to The Advocate, the motion also emphasizes that the press and the public have a considerable interest in viewing the jury selection, which is a significant part of any trial.

"The public's right to know is particularly compelling where, as here, a criminal trial involves allegations of wrongdoing by public officials," the appeal says, as reported in The Advocate.

Attorney Edward Castaing Jr. yesterday holds his throat indicating the gag order which will not allow him to comment on the Baton Rouge, La., federal insurance fraud trial of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, Ronald Weems and Jim Brown. Castaing is representing Weems in the case.

Louisiana State University law professor and former U.S. Attorney Ray Lamonica said Clement's move was uncommon.

Lamonica said potential jurors who would like to discuss sensitive matters with the judge, such as medical questions, typically approach the bench, out of the earshot of the press and other witnesses.

"If the entire question of bias of jurors is being explored as a sensitive, personal matter, that is an extension of usual procedure," Lamonica said.

Media lawyers asked that the remaining jury selection be immediately opened to the public and transcripts released of the portions held behind closed doors.

About 100 potential jurors were brought into the courtroom before it was cleared of reporters and spectators, including relatives of the defendants. Clement explained to them that their identities would not be made public.

"In a high-profile case, with high-profile defendants, prudence dictates certain steps be taken in order to maintain the integrity of the jury," Clement said.

Edwards, Brown and Shreveport attorney Ronald Weems are accused of working out an illegal sweetheart liquidation scheme for the now-defunct Cascade Insurance Co.

The men, who are muzzled under a sweeping gag order, are accused of helping the owner of Cascade create a sham financial settlement and try to derail a proposed $27 million lawsuit related to Cascade's liquidation in 1996.

The state took over the firm, which sold automobile insurance, in 1993 because the company could not pay its debts. The state collected $2.5 million for Cascade's creditors. Prosecutors say much more money should have been collected.

Edwards, Brown and Weems are charged with insurance, mail and wire fraud and conspiracy in the 57-count indictment. Brown and Weems also are charged with lying to investigators.

Three men have pleaded guilty and will testify against Edwards, Brown and Weems, who all deny any wrongdoing.


Update
Appeals panel rejects challenge to anonymous jury in Louisiana corruption trial
But federal court finds judge erred by telling news media not to ‘circumvent’ order keeping jurors’ names secret. 05.03.01

Related

Roundup: Former Louisiana governor cites gag order in call for re-trial

Other First Amendment news from around the United States. 07.12.00

Roundup: Former Louisiana governor fined for violating gag order

Other First Amendment news from around the United States. 08.29.00

Roundup: Federal judge refuses to halt Virginia minute-of-silence law
Other First Amendment news from around the United States. 09.01.00

Ruling affirming anonymous jury flouts principle of open trials
By Douglas Lee 5th Circuit decision in U.S. v. Brown treats ordinary newsgathering as threat to ‘integrity and independence of the jury process.’ 05.29.01

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