MIAMI -- The bribery-conspiracy trial of Alcee Hastings, the first federal judge to be tried for crimes allegedly committed while on the bench, began today with the questioning of prospective jurors.
Hastings, 46, Florida's first black federal judge, former civil rights activst and one-time U.S. Senate candidate, is accused of conspiring to take a $150,000 bribe to reduce the sentence of two racketeers.
Jury selection began shortly after 10:30 a.m. EST -- more than a half hour late -- in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Edward T. Gignoux.
The 313 prospective jurors were already seated in the courtroom when Hastings, smiling, walked into court with his co-counsel, Patricia Williams, who is also his fiancee. Hastings is representing himself in the trial.
Gignoux said jury selection could take several days and the trial up to three weeks.
Gignoux began the selection process by asking the candidates questions about Hastings. The list of questions had been agreed to in advance by Hastings and prosecuting attorneys.
'Are any of you personally acquainted with Judge Hastings?' he asked. Nobody responded.
'Do any of you have friends or close family members acquainted with Judge Hastings?' Five people raised their hands.
Gignoux said the pool of 313 will be narrowed to 36. Then, each will be asked dozens of questions, not only about Hastings but about their political opinions. Sixteen jurors -- 12 regulars and four alternates -- will be chosen to hear the trial.
Gignoux said jury members will be sequestered for the length of the trial and ruled that they cannot read newspapers or watch television. He did, however, agree to let them watch the Miami Dolphin-San Diego Charger NFL playoff game on Sunday.
Gignoux has not yet ruled on a pre-trial motion by Hastings that certain evidence be barred from the trial because it was collected during an illegal search of Hastings' chambers.
Government attorneys admit that the evidence against Hastings is largely circumstantial. Hastings has accused the government of singling him out because he is black and liberal, and because he has attacked the Reagan Administration.
The case against Hastings is based on an 1981 FBI undercover payoff of longtime Hastings friend and prominent Washington D.C. attorney William A. Borders Jr.
Borders allegedly accepted first $25,000 and then $125,000 from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for reducing the sentences and releasing the property of Frank and Thomas Romano, two south Florida racketeers convicted in his court.
Borders was convicted last year of bribery conspiracy, and sentenced to five years in prison by Gignoux.
Hastings never reduced the sentences, but did release some of the Romanos property.
Following the conviction, Hastings said 'I had absolutely nothing to do with whatever Bill Borders did.'
Since then Hastings has said that Borders was using his name to bilk the racketeers of their money, without Hastings' knowledge. Hastings also said the property reduction he ordered was in accordance with an appeals court ruling in a seperate case.
Another motion by Hastings -- arguing that a federal judge must be impeached before he is tried on criminal charges -- was rejected by the Supreme Court last week.