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Stewart jury selection starts with some snags

The first round of jury selection in Martha Stewart's obstruction-of-justice trial turned up prospective panel members with strong views of and even personal connections to the multimillionaire businesswoman, demonstrating how hard it will be to find unbiased jurors.

U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum questioned nearly 70 people over two days in closed sessions, but she released a transcript of Tuesday's session that offered a glimpse of the selection process, with jurors' names left out.

A woman who works at Credit Suisse First Boston told the judge that not only would she have trouble avoiding news reports of the case at work, but she also considered one of the government witnesses "sort of a mentor." The prospective juror added that she met Stewart at a conference.

When Cedarbaum excused her from service, she said to Stewart, "I'm a huge fan of yours. Good luck."

The pool also included people who said they "didn't trust" the woman who built a small catering business into an international domestic-product empire, or that Stewart "rubs me the wrong way."

A male prospective juror told the judge that his wife had worked for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. and had been "unfairly fired due to a maternity leave problem." Though the juror assured the judge that his wife's experience "should not affect my outcome," Cedarbaum excused him at the request of Stewart's attorney, Robert Morvillo.

Stewart, 62, is charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, securities fraud and making false statements about her Dec. 27, 2001, sale of stock in ImClone Systems Inc., the biotech company founded by her friend Samuel Waksal. A day later, a negative report on an ImClone cancer drug sent the company's stock tumbling. Stewart saved about $51,000 by making the sale.

Prosecutors say that Stewart and her broker, Peter Bacanovic, 41, lied to cover up that his assistant improperly told her that members of the Waksal family were dumping their shares.

Last year, Waksal was sentenced to a seven-year prison term after admitting that he sold millions of shares in his company's stock after receiving advance notice of the report.

Prospective jurors are being scrutinized for their views of the securities industry, recent corporate scandals and Stewart herself, in addition to the usual questions about their life experiences and thoughts about the criminal justice system.

By the end of the first day, Cedarbaum had excused about 20 jurors and asked about a dozen more to return Monday, when she hopes to assemble a panel of about 50 potential jurors who have survived the interview process. Lawyers for both sides would then be allowed to use "pre-emptory challenges" to remove panelists they don't like. Cedarbaum is likely to seat a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates because of the case's high profile and because testimony is expected to last at least four weeks, lawyers said.

Outside legal experts said it isn't surprising that the questioning process had flushed out so many potential jurors with strong views.

"Given Martha Stewart's unusually pronounced public profile, any potential juror who watches television or reads a newspaper may have formed some strong opinions about her," said Gregory Poe, a defense lawyer with the firm of Crowell & Moring LLP. "Preconceptions often become ingrained, and that's probably why you see so many prospective jurors being excused."

_ Information from Chicago Tribune and Associated Press was used in this report.

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