For those trying to follow jury selection in the Transform Now Plowshares trial, it was not an ideal situation. The public and media were isolated in an adjacent courtroom with a widescreen TV; the video remained steady—half the screen was filled with carpet, and the rest with an upward gazing view of the podium in the middle of the room. In the far distance, we saw small figures—Mike Walli and his lawyer, Chris Irwin, the prosecution, and once in a while the tiny head of potential juror who stood to answer a question.
From time to time, the video froze and the sound disappeared. One of the few jurors who confessed to holding strong views was asked by the judge to explain. “I really don’t think I could set aside my views. I have strong feelings, and I’m not 100% sure I could put that aside.” The sound dropped. Thirty seconds later we heard, “major, major extra time” and then it was gone again.
Five hours after it began, the jury pool was reassembled in the courtroom. The courthouse was closed as the clock moved toward seven o’clock. The judge began to call out the numbers of the selected jurors, and we got our first glimpse as they passed quickly in front of the camera to move to the jury box. “Number 265,” said Judge Amul Thapar. I scribbled the number and next to it, “WM.” White male. “Number 11,” said the judge. “11 WM,” I wrote. “Number 276,” said the judge. “276 WM,” I wrote. Halfway down the list Steve Baggarly leaned over and said, “I think you can stop writing ‘W’.”
In the end, it was ten men and four women, and Steve was right. We learned a little about the jury pool in general as the day wore on. Of 70 jurors, more than 45 had a family connection to the military. Three dozen had family or friends who work in law enforcement. A number work for federal agencies, some in Oak Ridge. Of those, more than a few jurors said of family members, “I don’t know what he does. We don’t talk about it.”
Only two admitted to having ever protested in a demonstration, protest or strike at any time in their lives. None had ever written a letter to the editor. Six out of seven had heard of the case, but of those, only three said they had formed strong opinions. And in perhaps the most incredible example of self-delusion, not one, not one single juror, had a problem with people protesting government actions.
We also learned that the judge may have some opinion of the case himself, since he began one question with “In a notorious case like this…” In a shift from standard voire dire, the judge asked all the questions himself, picking and choosing from a list submitted by the prosecution and defense teams.
As the day progressed and people identified family members who serve in law enforcement or work at the DOE facilities, the judge asked the same question: “If you don’t find these defendants guilty, will you have any problem explaining to them the government just didn’t meet its burden of proof?” Of course, the answer was always, “No.” Hidden in the judge’s question was this assumption—anyone in law enforcement or working at Oak Ridge facilities would start with the presumption that the only right answer was “Guilty,” and a juror would have to explain why they came up with the wrong answer…
The redemptive parts of a day filled with tedious legal process of dubious value were the parts that sandwiched the hours in court. A rousing skit, simple, powerful and direct, on Knoxville’s Market Square drew curious onlookers as a bomb was transformed into a scenic landscape and dozens of supporters marched, chanting “Transform Now!” and drumming on their way to the courthouse.
After court, we gathered in the fellowship hall of First Presbyterian Church for a wonderful dinner prepared by the Buddhist monks of the Great Smoky Mountains Temple and Peace Pagoda, and music from Charlie King. As the sweet soft strains of “We are the boat” rose from eighty-some voices, we felt it even as we heard it: “I sail in you; you sail in me.” The community was gathered, united, at peace.
Court will begin at 9:00am sharp on Tuesday, May 7, and the judge said he expects to begin at 8:30 am on succeeding days.