NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The scandal known as Bridgegate headed to court Thursday.
Two former allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie face wire fraud and civil rights counts in the 2013 case where lanes of the George Washington Bridge were shut down – causing traffic backups in Fort Lee.
A pool of about 300 prospective jurors headed to court on Thursday, CBS2’s Christine Sloan reported. The number will eventually be whittled down to 16 or 18, depending on how many alternates the judge wants.
Prospective jurors were to fill out a questionnaire Thursday, then return next week to answer questions from attorneys. And one thing is for certain — there will be no shortage of drama.
Two access lanes to the bridge were closed for five days three years ago this month. The lane closures came during the week of the Sept. 11 observance and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
David Wildstein, Christie’s former Port Authority appointee, said that he – along with Baroni and Kelly – hatched up the plant to punish Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for declining to endorse Christie for reelection.
Fort Lee manages the access lanes commuters use to cut through.
Wildstein claimed Christie knew about the plan, though the governor has denied involvement.
Kelly sent the now-infamous email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
She later said she wanted to make it “very clear” that she was not guilty of the charges against her.
Finding a jury that does not know about Bridgegate will be next to impossible, according to former federal prosecutor Robert Mintz.
“It’s a common misconception that the government and the defense are looking for people who have never heard the case,” Mintz said. “What they’re looking for is people who they believe can be fair and open-minded.”
Much of the defense’s evidence has been redacted and censored, so a list of those testifying will not be out until trial.
Whether Christie would be among those subpoenaed remained a matter of speculation Thursday.
“Trying to draw the governor into this case; trying to get the governor to testify is something that the judge is going to be reluctant to do. But I think she will let this case play out, see how the evidence comes in, and then make the decision at the appropriate time,” Mintz said.
Mintz said no matter what, a jury has to be in place and ready to go when opening statements begin on Sept. 19.
Christie has denied knowledge of the closures. Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University says the trial may provide answers as to what the governor knew and when he knew it.
“They acted like loyal foot soldiers. But then it seems like the governor threw them under the bus in various ways and so there’s not a whole lot of reason for them to continue to be loyal,” Harrison told WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond.
Analysts also said defense attorneys could push for the jury to return a not guilty verdict under what is called jury nullification – using an argument that a lot of people were in on the plan and their clients should not be the only ones being punished.
Attorneys for Baroni and Kelly are expected to argue to a jury that the alleged scheme extended well beyond their clients and that they are being scapegoated for the actions of others, including Wildstein, the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official who has pleaded guilty and will testify for the government.
Prosecutors scored an early victory Wednesday when a judge ruled they can seek to show the defendants engaged in a pattern of heavy-handed tactics against political foes.
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