Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Courtesy Kimberly Mitchell, Detroit Free Press.
Written By: Tresa Baldas and Jim Schaefer, Detroit Free Press
Detroit, MI -- A decade in the making, the federal government's public corruption probe targeting former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and three others officially gets under way with opening statements today, following a turbulent week of grueling jury selection and a last-minute change of venue request.
The request was denied Thursday, setting the stage for what is expected to be a four-month trial that begins at 9 a.m. today in U.S. District Court in Detroit.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds disagreed with the defense's eleventh-hour request to move the trial elsewhere on the grounds that negative news media coverage has made it virtually impossible to get a fair trial in Detroit.
"I'm sure it's going to be no surprise to anyone in this courtroom that I'm going to deny this motion," Edmunds said, noting that a diverse jury had been seated a day earlier. "Although it was a long, tough process, it worked as we had all hoped."
The jury includes five African Americans, one Hispanic and six white people.
Edmunds called the panel "an extremely good jury" and said there's nothing to presume the jurors will be prejudiced or intimidated by the news media.
Lawyers for Kilpatrick and the other defendants said a "circus-like" atmosphere surrounding the case could force jurors to render a guilty verdict. They cited a Monday Free Press report about a juror in the mistrial of Kilpatrick's codefendant Bobby Ferguson. The report said the woman -- identified as a holdout by multiple jurors -- failed to disclose crucial information about her life that would have raised red flags for the prosecution, including her husband's felony conviction involving cocaine.
Edmunds concluded one newspaper report wouldn't influence the jury and didn't warrant moving the trial out of Detroit.
Defense attorneys said they weren't surprised.
"It is what it is. Now we have to face what's ahead of us. ... Game on!" said Michael Rataj, one of three lawyers representing Ferguson.
Rataj said that although the defense expected to lose the change-of-venue request, they had to put it on the record for possible grounds for an appeal later.
Rataj said all four defendants -- Kilpatrick; his father, Bernard Kilpatrick; Ferguson, and ex-city water boss Victor Mercado -- appear to be on the same page in terms of defense strategy.
"Now we're all floating down the river on the same boat," Rataj said.
He was responding to questions about whether the defendants are concerned over what Mercado may do at trial. In recent months, Mercado has cast himself as the outsider of the group, saying he was never part of Kilpatrick's inner circle and was extorted by Kilpatrick.
In court documents, Mercado has said he will act as a second prosecutor in the case and disclose damaging information about the ex-mayor that not even the prosecution is privy to.
"We'll cooperate in the places where we can," said John Minock, one of Mercado's two lawyers.
Kilpatrick, his father, Ferguson and Mercado are charged with running a criminal enterprise through the mayor's office to enrich themselves. Specifically, they are accused of rigging water contracts and extorting city contractors to steer work Ferguson's way.
The government will tell the complex case to jurors in the form of chapters, relying on scores of subpoenas, wiretaps, surveillance video, text messages and meetings with informants.
The government's witnesses will include several former Kilpatrick associates, friends and aides and various convicted criminals who have cut deals with the government in exchange for their testimony.
If convicted, each man faces up to 30 years in prison.