Trial begins for former Newark mayor

Jury selection held Tuesday
March 3, 2008 5:16:50 AM PST
Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James arrived in federal court Tuesday for the first of two federal corruption trials.The often talkative James said little to reporters besides "good morning" as he entered the courthouse, just blocks from City Hall, his longtime base of power.

One of his lawyer, Thomas Ashley, said he expects the former mayor to be vindicated. "We are confident in our defense," he said.

He declined to say if James would testify at the trial in which the former mayor is accused of helping a companion, Tamika Riley, buy nine city-owned properties at discounted rates and aiding her in quickly reselling them at higher prices.

James, 72, and Riley, 38, have pleaded not guilty. He faces five counts, including conspiracy and fraud. Riley faces those charges as well as eight others, including tax evasion.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, James could face seven to eight years in prison if he is convicted on all counts. But a judge could impose a much stiffer penalty - as much as 20 years on some individual counts.

Ashley said they are looking for fair jurors who can understand some of the complicated concepts of real estate transactions and the mayor's relationship with the City Council, which the defense has maintained had the final say on land sales.

On Tuesday, 150 prospective jurors from across northern New Jersey began filling out questionnaires based on questions submitted by prosecutors and James' team of attorneys. They are expected to be asked about issues ranging from newspaper reading habits and occupations to their views on race and extramarital affairs.

U.S. District Judge William J. Martini spent nearly 30 minutes explaining the case to potential jurors, introducing the defendants and their attorneys and summarizing the charges against them.

Attorneys will read the answers to the questionnaires on Tuesday afternoon and are expected to begin questioning some potential jurors as soon as Wednesday. Another jury pool of more than 100 is expected Wednesday.

Trials held in the Newark federal courthouse draw jurors from the North Jersey counties of Essex, Union, Bergen, Passaic, Middlesex, Hudson, Sussex and Morris, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.

Prosecutors said they plan to present evidence that the mayor, who is married, had an intimate relationship with Riley.

Attorneys are expected to begin face-to-face questioning of prospective jurors as soon as Wednesday to select 12 jurors and seven alternates.

Alan Zegas, an attorney for James, said jury selection could take a week or two.

Prosecutors have said they expect the first trial to last as long as three months, with 40 to 50 witnesses expected.

In the second trial, James will face charges that he used city-issued credit cards for $58,000 in personal expenses while he was mayor, including trips with several women other than his wife to Martha's Vineyard, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Rio de Janeiro.

James served as mayor of New Jersey's largest city from 1986 to 2006 before deciding not to seek a sixth term. He also served as a state senator from 1999 to January 2008.