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One by one, they step into the vacant jury box in U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth’s fourth-floor federal courtroom. Each Washington, D.C., resident responds to the judge’s quiet, solicitous questions about whether he or she, as a juror, would be capable of voting for the death penalty in good conscience. It is a first for Lamberth, a first for the assistant U.S. Attorneys on the case, and a first for the lead attorney on the defense team representing Tommy Edelin, who is accused under federal law of ordering the deaths of several people to expand and protect his drug operation. There has not been a death penalty trial in the District for nearly 30 years. And D.C. residents voted overwhelmingly in 1992 to reject a local death penalty law. More often than not, Lamberth dismisses the prospective juror. Thus far, only 31 people have gotten past the first cut, out of about 100 D.C. residents who have made the trek to the jury box since the selection process began last month. More than 200 others have been granted hardship exemptions. Once Lamberth has approved a pool of 90 possible jurors, he will launch into a second step of selection when both sides will be able to use peremptory challenges to whittle down the group to the final panel. The stakes are high. So much so that each side has brought on a jury consultant to help with a process that has so far lasted two weeks and will probably take at least two weeks more. “When you have to have a death-qualified jury pool, that already eliminates about two-thirds of the jurors, based on the 1992 referendum,” says James Rudasill, a D.C. sole practitioner who is Edelin’s lead trial counsel. “And add to that the length of time and the hardship. Those will also make it difficult.” This will be an anonymous jury. Prosecutors, who claim that Edelin chose some of his alleged victims because he thought they might be police informants, asked Lamberth to keep the jurors’ names out of the hands of all parties to the case. In January, Lamberth agreed. The trial is expected to be a courtroom epic that observers say will take Lamberth between four and six months to try — six hours a day, four days a week. That doesn’t include jury selection or a “penalty phase” that could occupy another two or three weeks if Edelin is convicted of capital murder. Edelin, 32, is not accused of killing anyone by his own hand. But prosecutors say he masterminded, sometimes from a jail cell, more than a dozen murders in an effort to control the cocaine trade in a southeast Washington housing complex. Five other defendants, including Edelin’s father, have been charged in the case. Although Edelin’s lawyers decline now to discuss their lines of defense, they are expected to argue that their client had no role in planning murders that were committed by other people. LEARNED IN THE LAW Edelin’s lawyers also need to be qualified for the death case, but in an entirely different manner. Federal law requires that at least two lawyers be appointed to represent a defendant facing the death penalty. It also requires that at least one of them “shall be learned in the law applicable to capital cases.” These “learned” lawyers are paid $125 an hour from taxpayer funds under the Criminal Justice Act, considerably more than the $75-an-hour rate paid to CJA lawyers in ordinary D.C. federal court cases. But how does one find lawyers with death penalty experience in Washington, D.C., a city where the last execution took place in 1957, where no capital trial has taken place since 1972, and where the most severe penalty under local law is life imprisonment? (A year ago, Carl Derek Cooper pleaded guilty to the 1997 triple murder in a Georgetown Starbucks, accepting a sentence of life imprisonment without parole and avoiding an impending capital trial in U.S. District Court.) In this situation, there are two ways of qualifying lawyers for capital cases. One approach is to look for lawyers with experience in neighboring jurisdictions. The other is to provide in-service training at a “death penalty school” as a substitute. Examples of both can be found on the three-member Edelin defense team. William Kanwisher, a Baltimore sole practitioner, was the last lawyer to join the Edelin team when Lamberth appointed him in November 2000. He spent 13 years working for the state public defender’s office in Maryland. As a state public defender and a private practitioner, Kanwisher has represented, at one stage of trial or another, two dozen people facing a possible death penalty. Kanwisher has taken four capital cases to trial, and only one of these defendants was executed. His most notorious case was that of John Thanos, a triple murderer who refused to appeal his convictions and, in 1994, became the first person to be executed by the state of Maryland in nearly 33 years. The other two members of the Edelin defense team are Rudasill and D.C. sole practitioner Pleasant Brodnax III. Brodnax, like Kanwisher, has death penalty experience in a nearby jurisdiction, having tried two such cases in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In one, a Lorton, Va., prison inmate who stabbed another inmate to death was convicted of second degree murder and got a life sentence. In the other case, Brodnax also did federal habeas work for a condemned prisoner who was later executed. Brodnax joined Edelin’s team in March 2000. Rudasill, a 15-year criminal practitioner in D.C. who has also represented Edelin for about a year, has no experience in capital cases. He became “death qualified” by taking a one-week course at Santa Clara University School of Law in Northern California. Participation in the school is partially subsidized by the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, a unit of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts that tries to improve the quality of CJA representation in federal death penalty cases. Rudasill’s best-known recent case was that of Harold Cunningham Jr., who stabbed a witness in open court during his 1996 trial for a series of murders, robberies, and other crimes. In 1999, prosecutors dropped the case against Cunningham for the stabbing. Cunningham is, in any case, serving a term of life plus 380 years on other convictions. Both sides are utilizing jury selection experts of sorts. The prosecution team — Assistant U.S. Attorneys Paul Quander, William Sullivan Jr., and Stephen Pfleger — is getting help from Gwynn Kinsey of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. Kinsey has experience in federal capital cases and has been assigned to the case to work specifically on jury selection. The Edelin team also features a jury consultant paid out of taxpayer funds: Marjorie Fargo of Alexandria’s Jury Services Inc. Recently, Fargo was a defense jury consultant in the murder trial of former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth. Last January, Carruth was acquitted of first degree murder charges but convicted on three other felony counts, including conspiracy to commit murder, for his role in the fatal shooting of his pregnant girlfriend. Fargo declines comment about her role in the Edelin trial. But she shed some light on her strategy during the Carruth case last fall, when she told the Charlotte Observer, “What we’re really looking for is not the perfect individual juror, but the best mix of life experiences, so we have a balanced view of the defendant’s innocence.”

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