CINCINNATI — The public corruption trial of former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld is underway with jury selection Tuesday.
U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole has ordered 80 prospective jurors who are willing to spend up to four weeks hearing the case.
The trial will take place at the federal courthouse in downtown Cincinnati, but jurors could live as far away as Ironton in Lawrence County, which borders West Virginia. The federal court district spans 10 counties stretching along Ohio’s southern border into the rural farmlands of Adams, Brown, Clinton, Highland and Scioto counties, and the more suburban areas in Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties.
Attorneys will choose 12 jurors and four alternates. The lengthy process of selecting a jury can be tedious for court watchers, but experts say it is the most crucial part of the case. Each side wants jurors who they feel will be open or sympathetic to their version of the case.
“Mr. Sittenfeld comes from a wealthy background; he’s Ivy League educated and his ascent in politics was very fast … he will likely appear to a lot of jurors from that area as a very privileged individual,” said former Councilman Steve Goodin, who is also an attorney and former prosecutor. “I think there are some concerns on the defense side over how that will play.”
Jurors will fill out detailed questionnaires and attorneys will use those documents during jury selection. Jury selection could last from a few hours to a few days, depending on how much leeway Cole gives attorneys in their questioning.
It may help Sittenfeld’s case to have jurors who live outside this media market and haven’t been exposed to coverage of his public corruption arrest.
Sittenfeld, who has maintained his innocence, was a rising political star and the front-runner to be the next mayor of Cincinnati before FBI agents arrested him for allegedly promising support and “official acts,” to help the development of Convention Place downtown in exchange for $40,000 in donations to his political action fund.
He faces six charges related to public corruption at trial, which is expected to last two weeks.
“I expect there’s going to be a lot of questions looking for any kind of political bias,” Goodin said, such as asking them what television news programs they watch and what they read.
Goodin expects defense attorneys may be looking for jurors who are very conservative and take a hands-off approach to campaign fundraising.
Ken Katkin, a Northern Kentucky University law professor said the public generally has a negative opinion between money and elections even if the fundraising is completely legal.
Sittenfeld’s defense team may be looking for jurors who work in careers where emotions are allowed, such as social workers and teachers, because they may be more willing to give Sittenfeld the benefit of the doubt, Goodin said.
Meanwhile prosecutors may be looking for jurors who are used to making hard decisions, drawing a line and making quantitative calls such as doctors, lawyers, managers, and people who work in the construction trades or human resources industries, Goodin said.
“There is naturally going to be a certain revulsion to the piles of money involved,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “Even if it’s entirely clear and clean, there’s going to be some revulsion in -- why is this person spending all of their time with their hand out, why was he so desperate to get a few thousand dollars from this person on this day?”