The long-anticipated bribery trial of Gilbert Baker got underway Friday as a jury of eight women and four men was selected to hear the case against the former state senator from Conway.
Baker, 66, is a former political fundraiser, a past chairman of the state Republican Party and a former executive and music teacher at the University of Central Arkansas. His trial on accusations that he was the middleman in an effort to bribe former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Michael Maggio is expected to last three weeks.
In July 2013, Maggio lowered a $5.2 million jury verdict against the owner of Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center to $1 million. His action occurred July 10, the day after 10 $3,000 checks written by the nursing home's owner, Michael Morton, arrived at the home of Baker, a friend and political ally of Maggio. The checks were made out to political action committees that were primarily helping Maggio's campaign for a seat on the state Court of Appeals.
Morton, a Fort Smith businessman, hasn't been charged with a crime. He has said the money was meant for Maggio's judicial campaign but wasn't an attempt to influence the outcome of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit had been filed against the nursing home by the family of 76-year-old Martha Bull of Perryville, who died in 2008 about two weeks after being admitted for an expected monthlong rehabilitation for a mild stroke and an abdominal illness. The family said a doctor was never summoned despite Bull's tears from pain and nausea, her cold and clammy skin, and blood in her stool.
Morton has called the timing of the checks -- written July 8, 2013, the same day his lawyers asked Maggio to void or cut the jury award to Bull's family -- "coincidental."
Baker appeared in court Friday morning accompanied by attorneys J. Blake Hendrix and Annie Depper of Little Rock as U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. began the daylong process of selecting 12 jurors and three alternates from among the 90 people who were called to be in the jury pool.
Questioning so many potential jurors while trying to avoid bunching too many people together required the use of all four ground floor courtrooms in the Richard Sheppard Arnold Courthouse. Marshall's courtroom was used for attorneys and about a third of the jury pool, two additional courtrooms were set up for sound to house the other two-thirds of the pool, and a fourth courtroom was set up to simulcast the proceedings for media outlets and other observers.
Jurors were questioned on a variety of subjects, most dealing with their knowledge of the case or familiarity with the defendant, the attorneys or potential witnesses, which included Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, former U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland and Maggio, who is serving a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to bribery in 2016 in federal court.
One prospective juror, when asked about her association with Tom Courtway, former president of University of Central Arkansas in Conway, said she had a long association with his family.
"If you thought that Tom Courtway was not telling the truth about something, could you come to that conclusion?" Marshall asked the prospective juror.
"No sir," she replied. "Tom couldn't lie."
"That concerns me," Marshall said as he released the woman from consideration. "I think it would be better if you served in another case."
Marshall explained that every juror would have to evaluate every witness to decide who was being completely truthful, partially truthful, or not truthful at all.
"I don't want any friendships or family connections to be pulling at you while you try to make that determination," he said.
Throughout the day, various members of the jury pool were seen walking out of the courthouse after being released from duty.
Toward the end of the day, the questioning grew lighter in nature as prospective jurors were queried about topics such as their personal television watching habits, what radio stations they listened to, hobbies, bumper stickers, and what news sources they follow, among others.
To a man who said he mostly watched sports, the judge asked, "Are you sorry about the Bucks?"
"I'm a LeBron [James] fan," the man replied.
A woman in the pool said her favorite hobby was reading romance novels.
"Well, who can be against love and romance?" Marshall replied.
To a woman who said she owns a produce market, Marshall asked, "Are you open this evening?"
"It depends on when you let us out of here," the woman replied as the courtroom broke up in laughter.
After selecting the 12 jurors and three alternates, Marshall swore in the panel. After admonishing them to avoid any news regarding the trial, to stay off social media and not to discuss the case with anyone, Marshall told them to be back at the courthouse, in the jury box, ready to hear opening statements by 8:30 a.m. Monday.