Jury selection was moving more swiftly than expected for the retrial of Pittsburgh-area state Sen. Jane Orie, who's charged with illegally using her state-paid staff for political campaigns — and then lying about that and forging documents she presented while testifying at her first trial last year.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned only 24 of 101 potential jurors summoned before both sides broke for lunch on Monday. The attorneys had selected six of the 12 jurors and four alternates needed.
Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning has told the jurors the trial could last up to three weeks — including some extended days and perhaps even a Saturday or two — prompting more than half of the pool to claim that serving on the jury would be an undue hardship. Sixty-three jurors also raised their hands when questioned together whether they had heard or read anything about the case.
That wasn't surprising given the intense local publicity — and the fact that the Republican lawmaker has since been charged with 16 new counts alleging she committed perjury, forged documents and otherwise tampered with evidence during the first trial. Manning declared a mistrial during jury deliberations almost a year ago, after determining that one defense document had been forged.
Despite that, most of the jurors questioned individually said they remembered few details about the case and almost none said they had fixed opinions about Orie's guilt or innocence despite what they have seen or heard in the media or from other sources.
One man who was excused from duty said he was influenced "just from the sheer amount" of media coverage. "I believe that's enough to base an opinion on," he said.
Another man was excused, despite claiming to know little about the case, after telling the judge and the attorneys, "I have a problem with politicians. That's why I'm not registered to vote. I do not know one that I could believe, that I'd trust."
But another juror excluded for bias said she read coverage of the first trial and concluded, "I think she's innocent."
Orie's attorney, William Costopoulos quipped, "I think she's perfect" before Manning excluded her.
The senator, 50, is standing trial alone this time around, largely because she and her sister, Janine Orie, 57, who live together in McCandless Township, both face additional charges since the mistrial.
They were originally charged with conspiring to use the senator's state paid staff to do political campaign work that benefited Sen. Orie and a third sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, during the last decade. Melvin has not been charged though received a target letter and was subpoenaed in December by the same grand jury that recommended charges against her sisters.
Janine Orie, who is suspended from her $67,000-a-year job as Melvin's aide, was charged in December with directing campaign work by Melvin's former Superior Court staffers during both an unsuccessful 2003 run for the Supreme Court and Melvin's subsequent victory in 2009. Melvin and her attorney have not answered repeated calls for comment on those allegations, or her decision to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination before the grand jury.
Manning decided it would be fairer for Sen. Orie and Janine Orie to be tried separately this time because the new charges against each have nothing to do with the alleged conspiracy to misuse the senator's staff. Janine Orie's retrial has yet to be rescheduled, but isn't expected until the fall.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.