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Carona jury selection to begin today

Prospective jurors will hear the corruption charges against former O.C. sheriff and fill out 14-page questionnaires.

October 03, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Nearly one year after the indictment of former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, some 650 prospective jurors are expected to file into the Santa Ana federal courthouse today in the first step in choosing a jury for his upcoming corruption trial.

Despite speculation in Orange County law enforcement circles that the case would end in a plea bargain before trial, all indications this week are that testimony would begin Oct. 28 as scheduled.

The jury candidates were chosen at random and notified by mail to appear today before U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford. They are expected to listen to the charges against Carona and then fill out lengthy questionnaires that would ask, among other things, whether they have followed the case in the media or have any opinions about the charges.

Attorneys would use the questionnaires to narrow the field before Guilford questions potential jurors in person Oct. 22.

The U.S. attorney's office has accused Carona, who served for nine years as Orange County sheriff, of accepting tens of thousands of dollars worth of cash, gifts and loans from people who expected favors from him. He also is charged with witness tampering for allegedly asking former Assistant Sheriff Donald Haidl to lie to a grand jury that was investigating the former sheriff.

Also charged in the case are Carona's wife, Deborah, and his former mistress, Debra V. Hoffman.

Deborah Carona is scheduled to stand trial separately. All three have pleaded not guilty.

Carona resigned from office in January to prepare for the trial. The Orange County Board of Supervisors appointed Sandra Hutchens, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's executive, to fill out the remainder of Carona's term.

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys would disclose whether they are weighing a plea bargain. But some of Carona's closest friends said they expect the case to move forward.

"I know they're excited to go to trial. Their lawyers are optimistic," said Valerie Goldstein, a close friend of Carona and his wife. "He wants to get this over with. He wants to exonerate himself. He truly believes he is right, that he has the evidence to back up his integrity. He feels he can fight every allegation."

Carona has benefited by the decision of mega-law firm Jones Day to represent him free of charge, sparing him attorney fees that could have exceeded $1 million.

"He can afford to fight because it's not coming out of his pocket," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor. She said other factors probably are encouraging Carona to fight. "He's lost his job. He's lost his reputation. For him to go to jail even on a plea bargain is a pretty terrifying prospect. I'm not surprised to see him fight it."

Levenson also said it's not surprising that federal prosecutors are pressing forward. "This is a major prosecution by the office, and I don't think they want it to peter out. You don't swing at the dragon unless you're going to slay him," she said.

In the months leading to jury selection, Carona's attorneys sought to have the case moved out of Southern California because of extensive pretrial publicity, but Guilford said he thought it would be possible to find an impartial jury in an area with millions of prospective jurors.

The first part of finding that jury will be the 14-page questionnaires to be distributed today. Among many topics, the survey asks jurors how closely they have followed the case, whether they believe politicians are corrupt and whether they have been strongly affected by marital infidelity.

Testimony in the case is expected to last four to six weeks.

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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