Stevens jury is deliberating, but finds the task stressful

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Stevens' fate is now in the hands of jurors.

"The case is yours," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan told them just before lunch Wednesday.

The jury returned to Sullivan's court at 4:25 p.m. Sullivan said it had sent a note. Paraphrasing, he said the jurors wanted to leave early: "Kind of stressful right now. We need a minute of clarity right now."

No problem, Sullivan said. "Of course I will let you go."

The judge said earlier that he'd usually dismiss jurors for the day at 4:45 p.m. They start at 9:30 a.m. and have an hour for lunch.

It took Sullivan an hour and 20 minutes to read through 81 pages of instructions to the jury on how to apply the law to the evidence it had heard. It must decide whether the 84-year-old Alaska Republican is guilty of deliberately submitting false public statements about his personal finances covering the years 2000 to 2006.

The first of seven counts accuses Stevens of scheming to cover up false filings, while the other six charge him directly with lying on the Senate financial-disclosure forms for failing to disclose gifts and benefits in excess of the Senate gift limits. Those limits ranged from $260 in 2000 to $305 in 2006.

The charges are all felonies.

Over 15 days of testimony, prosecutors presented evidence that Stevens had received some $250,000 in gifts and services from a group of close friends, especially Bill Allen, former chairman of Veco Corp., an oil field-services company. Allen, who's pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska legislators and is awaiting sentencing, was the government's chief witness.

The defense said Stevens was unaware of Veco's role in the renovations to his home in Girdwood, Alaska. As for the other alleged gifts, Stevens said he didn't want them, didn't know where they came from or thought they were paid for by his wife or weren't as valuable as the government asserted.

Each felony count carries a punishment of up to five years in federal prison. Jurors are forbidden from considering potential punishment when they decide the senator's guilt or innocence.

Their decision probably will affect Stevens' fate at the polls. On Nov. 4, he faces Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat. Stevens has been in the courtroom for the past month as the campaign has gone on without him in Alaska.

Sullivan dismissed the four alternate jurors Wednesday but admonished them to not talk about the case on the outside chance that they may be called back if something happens to one of the remaining 12.

The alternates were randomly selected at the start of the trial, and their identities were known only to the judge, his staff and the parties. Two of the alternates hugged as they left the courtroom.

That left a jury that was even less diverse than before: a mostly middle-aged group of eight women and four men. By appearances, 10 seem to be African-American, one non-Hispanic white and one Hispanic.

In his instructions, Sullivan told the jurors that they may consider the five character witnesses they'd heard in determining the senator's guilt. The role of character witnesses is so important in a case based on Stevens' truthfulness that their testimony alone can be considered to raise a reasonable doubt of guilt.

Sullivan also cautioned the jurors about Allen. Many of the gifts that Stevens is accused of accepting, including home renovations valued at more than $100,000, came from Allen or Veco.

Witnesses who've entered into plea agreements are under the same obligation to tell the truth as any other witness, the judge said, adding that Allen's guilty plea to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska has no connection to this case.

"Those charges have nothing to do with Senator Stevens," Sullivan said.

It's up to the jurors to weigh Allen's biases and interests against those of other witnesses who testified in the trial, Sullivan said.

The jurors are allowed to consider several other alleged acts as evidence of motive, although Stevens wasn't charged with any crimes in connection with them. They include accepting a loan from a friend for a real estate deal and failing to report it, asking Allen to help his son and grandson find jobs and accepting a generator from Allen.

Those acts may be considered for "proof of motive, intent, opportunity, preparation, plan, knowledge, or absence of mistake or accident," Sullivan said.

The judge reminded jurors of the evidence he's stricken: all testimony about a car trade that Allen made with Stevens for Stevens' daughter Lily; evidence showing how much Veco paid two Veco workers, Robert "Rocky" Williams and Dave Anderson, during the time that they worked on Stevens' home; a gift bag and shotgun that Stevens received from the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association; and a punching bag and frame he got from Veco.

The car and the time records had been stricken early in the trial after sharp complaints by the defense and a rebuke by the judge that prosecutors had failed to provide evidence to the defense. However, the language in the instructions laid no blame for why the evidence wasn't to be considered.