Opening statements begin in McDougal trial
First prosecution witness expected Wednesday afternoon
March 10, 1999
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (AllPolitics, March 10) -- With the jury in place, opening statements began Wednesday in the trial of Whitewater figure Susan McDougal in her long-running legal battle with Independent Counsel Ken Starr. The first prosecution witness will immediately follow.
Lawyers for the prosecution and defense will deliver their opening statements, expected to take 30 minutes each, after the jury of six women and six men received their instructions from U.S. District Judge George Howard Sr.
Grand jurors who were on the panel when McDougal refused to answer questions will testify first. Also expected to appear for the prosecution is FBI agent Michael Patkus, who investigated McDougal's use of a fraudulent, government-backed $300,000 loan.
McDougal, 44, is charged with two counts of criminal contempt and one count of obstruction of justice for her refusal to testify before Starr's Whitewater grand jury in September 1996 and April 1998. If convicted, McDougal could face as much as 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.
Deputy Independent Counsel Hickman Ewing said they will attempt to prove that McDougal had information relevant to their investigation when she refused to testify before the Whitewater grand jury in Little Rock.
Investigators want McDougal to answer questions about President Bill Clinton's sworn testimony about their Whitewater partnership and about a check that investigators discovered with the notation on the back: "Payoff Clinton."
Starr on trial?
McDougal has called the trial a "personal vendetta" by Starr. She has already served 18 months for civil contempt for refusing to answer the grand jury's questions about the Clintons, her former Whitewater partners.
McDougal's defense will argue there were mitigating factors and will try, in effect, to put Starr on trial. Her lawyers have even suggested they will call Starr himself to testify. Another possible witness is Monica Lewinsky, to describe the independent counsel's tactics.
McDougal is also expected to take the stand in her own defense. She did not do so during her first contempt trial and the move will subject her to cross-examination.
Much of the past two days of jury selection have centered on the intense controversy over Starr's investigation.
Potential jurors were questioned about their feelings towards the Whitewater prosecutor. "I don't hold a high opinion of Ken Starr," said one.
"I have those opinions too, I would like to do this to help her," said another, referring to Susan McDougal.
But another was excused when she told the judge, "If I were in Ms. McDougal's shoes I would not be comfortable with me as a juror."
Observers familiar with the case have indicated that one possibility in the trial is that even if Starr's prosecutors prove their case, the jury may choose to acquit her in a process that is known as "jury nullification," when a judge's orders are ignored.
"This is not a case about jury nullification. This is a case about a woman who did not want to lie," McDougal attorney Mark Geragos told reporters as he left the federal courthouse in Little Rock Tuesday.
McDougal also served four months of a two-year sentence for a Whitewater-related fraud conviction before she was freed for medical reasons.
The latest Susan McDougal trial began exactly a year to the day her former husband, Jim, died in prison. Also a partner in Whitewater, Jim McDougal was cooperating with prosecutors even as the independent counsel's focus shifted to the Lewinsky case.
But now the investigation has returned to its roots: Whitewater. The contempt case is just one illustration that Starr is not finished yet with the Clintons.
CNN's Bob Franken and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.
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