Commissioner Heard’s trial underway

Jury selection dominated the first day

By Mike Mason

Special to Martin County Currents

Jury selection for a criminal trial is a tricky process regardless of the charges or defendant involved, but it is even more so when the person on trial is a politician or other well-known public figure.

As an experienced courtroom observer and journalist for more than 40 years, I’ve covered somewhere around 200 trials, perhaps as many as 50 of those were murder cases, and a 1978 espionage case that was my courtroom baptism under a national spotlight.

I cannot recall a trial, however, where the defendant was known more for other things than what they were on trial for, as is the situation with Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard. Almost none knew the charges against Heard until the judge told them.

Of the 32 prospective jurors questioned during the court’s voir dire process Monday by Senior Judge J. David Langford, who retired in 2013 as a circuit judge from Highlands County, and the attorneys for both sides, nine were excused because they had already formed various opinions that might sway their judgment, or had some relationship to Heard or one or more of the 70 or so potential witnesses.

A handful of others in the panel told the judge they were reluctant to serve because missing a week or more of work would cause them financial hardship.

Assistant State’s Attorneys Ryan Butler and Nita Denton and the husband-wife team of Jordan and Barbara Kibbey Wagner, who represent Heard, say they want jurors who are like blank canvasses, who when they finally go into deliberation will know nothing about the case other than the testimony and evidence presented during the trial.

So, the process of jury selecting in this case was a search for seven people – six jurors plus one alternate – who are as ignorant and uninvolved in local politics as possible.

For the attorneys involved, that generally means a person who is fairly new to Martin County and too busy or disinterested to pay attention to what is going on in their community, even slightly.

Of the few prospective jurors who had heard of Sarah Heard, none had heard of fellow Commissioner Stacey Hetherington, who is a witness for both sides in the case.

Jordan Wagner drew a few chuckles when jurors responded to his question about “politicians and emails” with their answer, “Hillary Clinton,” and spent some time addressing the differences in the cases. In Heard’s case, Wagner pointed out, her use of a personal email account to conduct county business is not illegal, and that it was not an issue of national security.

Potential jurors who felt strongly that personal and business emails should be kept separate, part of “Best Management Practices,” and if not illegal, then the law should be changed, were not selected.

Wagner also asked if potential jurors believed that defendants who took the Fifth Amendment instead of testifying indicated guilt, or was simply a constitutional right of citizens. He explored the topic in depth to ensure that jurors would not hold it against Heard later, the first indication that Heard likely will not take the stand in her own defense.

The alleged charges against Heard are for violating public records laws, but the case is complicated by the county’s previous legal entanglement with the Lake Point Restoration project. The county settled the civil lawsuit by Lake Point in 2017 with a $12 million cash settlement and a letter of apology for the actions of some of its commissioners.

The county also paid $502,000 in sanctions after a civil jury found earlier in 2017 that Heard and two other commissioners had violated public records laws. None of the civil court rulings will be allowed as evidence in this criminal trial, which has a higher burden of proof than a civil court, another topic explored in depth by Heard’s attorney.

Wagner repeatedly emphasized the need for jurors to enter the trial with a blank slate, and be able to put aside their personal biases – including the distrust of politicians – “even if it may personally upset you.”

Opening arguments in the case will begin at 9 a.m. today in the Martin County courthouse.