May 7 trial date is on for Transform Now Plowshares

Megan, Michael and Greg

by Ralph Hutchison

Today was the day we met our new judge; Amul Thapar came down from Covington, KY to take over the Transform Now Plowshares case from the docket of retiring judge Thomas Phillips. Thapar was appointed ten days ago and last week called a status conference. So Greg got on a bus in Duluth and Megan and Michael caught the megabus in Washington, DC. Bill Quigley and Sara Godchaux drove up from Louisiana and Anabel and David Dwyer came down from Michigan.

There were a dozen supporters in the courtroom for what we expected would be a brief meeting; Judge Thapar took the bench about a half hour late and jumped right in to the business. He reviewed the motions and recommendations that were pending and then said, “We are scheduled for trial on May 7. Is there any reason we can not keep to that date?” Melissa Kirby for the prosecution said, “No, your honor,” and it was all but done.

The Judge assured all parties that he would do his homework, but he hadn’t done it yet, and that became clear as we sorted out the process thus far. “Walk me through this,” he said on more than one occasion. It was also clear that, for better or worse, the judge does not know the lay of the land in East Tennessee; is there a reason you schedule trials to start on Tuesday? The answer: there is often a lot of business to clean up on Monday, plus it allows a jury pool to be gathered and prepared. Judge Thapar nodded. It showed again when he got to jury selection (see below).

Francis Lloyd noted that in previous trials for lesser offenses the defense was to proffer expert testimony before the judge ruled what would and would not be allowed in front of the jury. Judge Thapar said, “I’ll hear anything you have to say,” and set the date for hearing proffered testimony for April 23.

We moved on to jury selection and the Judge outlines his intentions.  Defense would get 45 minutes and prosecution 30 minutes. Chris Irwin noted their were multiple defendants and the Judge stretched the time to an hour. Francis Lloyd noted voire dire might take longer than usual because there had been a great amount of press coverage, and this is a complex and far reaching case. “The action of these defendants has cost people their jobs and, arguably, cost companies their contracts. There is reason to wonder if we can find an impartial jury here.” The Judge stretched his limits, extended the time for voire dire and outlining how it would go. He said, “I’m not going to be over restrictive with this. If the questions are legitimate and are going somewhere, I’m not going to call time. On the other hand if the questions are repetitive, I will call time.”

The Judge also asked how many people should be summoned for the jury pool; in the end they want 32 qualified jurors. Francis Lloyd suggested three times the total needed; Assistant District Attorney Kirby agreed there was a lot more publicity than last time, but thought fewer might suffice. “Maybe,” the Judge considered, “We can look at how it was last time.” Francis demurred.

“This is not the same as last time,” said the Judge, “but I don’t believe people believe everything they read in the newspaper. Jurors will be able to distinguish between what they read and what they hear.” Francis Lloyd said he worried that jurors might lack the judge’s acumen. “I was just kidding about the media,” said the Judge. “But jurors know the media has a different standard than the courtroom.”

Francis said, “It’s not only the number of articles, but the nature. There were articles in local, national and even international media, especially referencing the maximum possible sentence.” Bill Quigley noted the jury would be asked to take a serious look at claims of national security.

In the end, the Judge said he might exclude jurors from Anderson County (the County Y12 and most of the Oak Ridge Reservation live in). Francis noted there are still conflicts with people who work for a plethora of contractors. “Anyone who works for one of those contractors is potentially biased.”

“There’s a difference between potentially biased and actually,” said Thapar. “Well,” said Francis, “I believe I would be awfully suspicious of a juror employed by a contractor.” The Judge said perhaps he would call 70 jurors. Chris Irwin asked, “Seventy jurors and we have an hour to question them?” The Judge bumped the time to 1 ½ hours for the defense and one hour for the government.

Near the end of the session, the prosecutor, Melissa Kirby, told the judge that during the previous trial, people outside the court had been handing our leaflets and one of the jurors had a leaflet. She suggested the judge do what he could to prevent that. She noted that many of the people who handed out leaflets were in the courtroom at that moment.

Bill Quigley jumped to a nice defense of the First Amendment, but it didn’t seem terribly necessary after all. Francis pointed out that as jurors approached on the first day, they would not be identifiable. The Judge noted he had no power to control what people might or might not do. And he admonished that any effort made to “taint the jury” would be punished.

That was about it. The lawyers have dates for getting the last motions in and presenting the judge with a list of potential witnesses in the April 23 hearing. The hearing is scheduled for 10:30am.