CHICAGO | Race became an issue Tuesday at the tax-evasion trial of an influential Cook County commissioner after the defense complained there were no black men in an initial jury pool and asked for it to be dismissed.
William Beavers, who is black, has pleaded not guilty to diverting more than $225,000 from campaign funds to feed a gambling habit and for other personal use without reporting it from 2006 through 2008.
Just after an initial pool 50 would-be jurors took an oath Tuesday and left the federal courtroom in Chicago, defense attorney Victor Henderson rose to note the absence of black men.
"To our astonishment, there is not one African-American male ... and only a few black women," he said. Beavers, 78, has a right to be judged by his peers, including African-American men, he added.
Given Chicago's demographics, Henderson argued randomness should have led, at a minimum, to three black men and three black women in the 50-person pool.
Judge James Zagel agreed it was unusual to not have a single black man in such a pool. He delayed a ruling, but made it clear he was unlikely to agree to dismiss the entire jury pool.
Jury-pool selection is supposed to be random, and Zagel told attorneys they could take time to investigate jury-office selection procedures to ensure it was random in Beavers' case.
But he said it was plausible a randomly selected pool would include no black males. If it's found the process was done correctly, he said he would have no authority to dismiss the pool based on race.
"You have to show something is wrong," he said about the selection process.
Zagel had said he expected a jury to be impaneled to begin hearing opening statements by Wednesday. But questions about the racial makeup of the jury pool could delay that timetable.
By federal law, courts and attorneys during jury selection are barred from objecting to individual jurors based on race — though courtroom adversaries often accuse each other of doing that.
It is rarer for attorneys to object to the jury pool itself as jury selection begins, as in this case, and before the court even questioned would-be jurors would by one.
While the case otherwise focuses on dry tax issues, it has attracted so much attention, in part, from the prospect that the old school politician with his shoot-from-the-hip swagger could testify.
He is known for crude if memorable rhetorical flourishes, the most famous of which came when he once offered a favorable estimation of his own prowess, calling himself "a hog with big nuts."
His lawyers have argued his is essentially a case of no harm, no foul — that he paid back the money at issue and amended his returns, albeit after he learned he was under investigation in 2009.
In all, Beavers has pleaded not guilty to four tax counts. If convicted, he faces a maximum three-year prison term on each count.