One of the largest public-corruption trials in Western North Carolina history started this morning, as jury selection began in the trial of former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford, with Judge Thomas Ellis, III summing up the charges and laying out the guidelines for the case.
Ellis thanked the 69 potential jurors, drawn from the 16 counties of North Carolina’s Western District, and gave what he called a “thumbnail sketch” of the 10 charges against Medford and former reserve Capt. Guy Penland (extortion under color of law, obstruction of justice, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, running an illegal-gambling operation, money laundering and five specific counts of mail fraud), before sending them off to answer a questionnaire intended to determine if there are reasons they are ineligible to serve as jurors in the trial.
A small crowd of spectators, numbering around 20 (many of them members of the media), attended the proceedings. Both Medford and Penland, among other figures in the courtroom, were asked to stand when identified. Medford, who wore a brown leather jacket, stood in a slightly stooped position and turned to face the crowd of potential jurors, offering a half-nod before sitting down.
“Remember, an indictment is not proof in any way—it’s just a formal way of presenting a charge,” Ellis said, noting that since both Medford and Penland had pleaded not guilty to their involvement in extracting money from illegal video-poker-machine operators, they should be assumed innocent until the jury ruled otherwise.
Jurors in the case were identified only by number for privacy purposes.
“That’s to protect your privacy and so no one starts calling you or anything like that,” Ellis said.
After the jury filed out, Ellis laid out some basic rules for the trial. He noted that, as a judge who usually presides in a much larger metropolitan area, he was used to calling all subpoenaed witnesses into the courtroom at once initially, before they were called back. However, he agreed to let Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards and Defense Attorney Stephen Lindsay abide by the district’s usual practice, where witnesses are put on stand-by that they may be called to testify.
The extensive witness list for the trial includes current Sheriff Van Duncan, District Attorney Ron Moore and Board of Elections Director Trena Parker.
Ellis also agreed to use the district’s usual practice of letting the attorneys keep the exhibits for their respective sides. He also dismissed three potential jurors, two because their relatives were terminally ill and another because he had recently suffered a severe head injury.
However, Ellis did note that he will change one practice of the court: In their opening remarks, attorneys will address the jury from a podium, instead of moving around and addressing the jury directly “in the eye,” as he termed it.”
“In my experience, jurors don’t really like that,” he said.
The trial will resume this afternoon, after lunch, and Ellis said it was his hope that the prosecutors and defense attorneys would be able to make their opening statements today. Xpress will offer regular reports as the trial continues.
— David Forbes, staff writer