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Libby perjury case goes to jury

Was it a coverup or a case of a busy man's poor recall in the Plame probe? Jurors are urged to use common sense.

February 22, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After a month of testimony and a day of impassioned debate by the lawyers, a federal jury Wednesday began considering the perjury case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton instructed the jurors on the law underlying the five-count indictment against Libby, and urged them to use common sense in deliberations to determine whether Libby was guilty of an illegal coverup or of merely having a bad memory.

The jury adjourned Wednesday afternoon without having reached a verdict, and will resume deliberations this morning.

Libby is charged with obstructing justice, perjury and making false statements to investigators. The government alleges that his actions impeded a three-year federal investigation into the unmasking of a CIA operative who is married to a Bush administration critic.

The trial, which included the testimony of several prominent journalists and current and former government officials, has offered an unusual inside look into how the administration attempted to discredit an adversary.

Prosecutors have alleged that a campaign to discredit former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV boiled over and that Wilson's wife, CIA arms-proliferation analyst Valerie Plame, was exposed in the crossfire. Libby tried to conceal his involvement because he feared that he had disclosed classified information, the government alleges.

The defense portrayed Libby as an overworked civil servant operating at the highest levels of government whose memory was fogged because of the pressing affairs of state. Libby, once Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff and national security advisor, did not testify, and his lawyers put on a limited defense that focused mainly on attacking the credibility of government witnesses -- a number of whom had memory problems of their own.

Walton said Wednesday that it was up to the jury to decide the credibility of those witnesses, and he urged the panelists to draw on their "common-sense experience" in assessing the testimony offered about the defendant. He said the fact that Libby exercised his right to remain silent during the trial should not be held against him.

Walton summarized the defense arguments that "Mr. Libby contends he told the FBI and the grand jury his honest recollection at the time, and to the extent any of those recollections were incorrect, his mistakes were innocent"; and that "the amount and scope of vital national security issues confronting him on a daily basis" affected his ability to recall events accurately for investigators.

The jury includes an MIT-trained economist, a retired museum curator and a former Washington Post reporter who once worked for Post editor Bob Woodward, a defense witness in the case.

The jurors' level of experience and education could be seen as good and bad news for the defense, some legal experts said. Besides Libby's so-called busy-man defense, his lawyers have suggested that he feared he was falling victim to a White House conspiracy.

One expert suggested that the argument that he was a busy man might resonate with this jury, but that the conspiracy theory probably would not.

"Stereotyping is always dangerous," said Dan Richman, a professor at Fordham University law school and former federal prosecutor. "But these do sound like people used to, and interested in, looking beyond courtroom theatrics -- and people likely to have a sense of the demands on, and capabilities of, executives in high-powered jobs."

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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