MAYS LANDING — One witness down, 759 to go?
The trial of Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small and five others accused of breaking election laws during the 2009 Democratic mayoral primary begins its fourth week Monday — not counting four earlier weeks spent selecting jury members.
But the jurors have seen only one full witness testify so far. Courtroom insiders hoped the trial would be done by Christmas, but now some say Valentine’s Day might be a better guess.
The state’s first witness, lead Detective Scott Orman, spent more than two weeks on the stand, including cross-examination from each of the six defense attorneys, followed by a second round of questioning. He finally was allowed to step down last Monday.
The state’s second witness, Eddie Colon Jr., will continue to testify Monday about tapes he secretly made for the state while working on the failed campaign.
There are 760 people on the witness list. And while it’s unlikely anywhere near that many will take the stand, no one on that list is allowed inside the courtroom until they testify — leaving very few in the audience, besides an occasionally curious attorney not related to the case. The temporary onlookers watch the proceedings, absorb the scene, then leave with a roll of the eyes or a look of exasperation.
Fourteen people, including Small, were indicted in September 2009, accused of mishandling ballots in the 2009 primary won by now-Mayor Lorenzo Langford. Two of those people have since pleaded guilty, leaving 12 to stand trial. But trying a dozen defendants at once was a challenge for the court, so the accused were split into two groups of six.
Still, six defense attorneys along with three deputy attorneys general representing the state have added up to several sidebars a day — along with daily discussions that cause the judge to send the jurors from the courtroom.
Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten has tried to soften the impact of the delays on jurors, instructing the jurors to come in later when he knows there is an outstanding issue that needs to be discussed without them. One such instance happened Friday. There was a 1 p.m. motion, so Batten had the jurors return from lunch 15 minutes later to allow for arguments.
But more than an hour after the jurors returned from their break, they still were waiting to re-enter the courtroom. The trial finally resumed at 2:36 p.m. The day ended with the jurors leaving 15 minutes before schedule because another matter had to be rectified after several sidebars didn’t do the trick.
A juror was the topic of conversation Thursday. Attorney Michael Schreiber — who is representing LuQuay Zahir — said that his client told him a juror had mouthed to other jurors “he’s getting a spanking” and slapped herself to illustrate, as the attorneys went to a sidebar after Schreiber and Batten went back and forth on an issue.
Schreiber said the juror also grimaces or changes her posture whenever she seems unhappy with an objection or sidebar. Several other defense attorneys supported Schreiber’s claims.
“Should we be surprised,” Batten asked, “that the jury sits there, watches this and wonders, figuratively speaking, when will this stop?
“I’m not surprised,” he added.
On one nearly eight-hour day, the jury spent only about five minutes in the box — when they arrived and when they were dismissed for the day. They spent the rest of that time answering questions, some of those questions involving a joke that a defense attorney not related to the case told two defendants and one juror. That juror — who was kept on in that case — then had to leave after finding out his employer misinformed him and he would be paid for only 10 days of jury duty before losing his paycheck.
There are now 17 jurors, meaning five will eventually serve as alternates when 12 begin deliberating the case.
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