SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Suspended California state Sen. Leland Yee could face a jury as early as June for charges of political corruption and conspiracy to import guns.
At a scheduling conference on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said Yee will be tried along with his political consultant Keith Jackson, who also faces drug and murder-for-hire charges. Breyer said those charges will be tried separately, but lawyers for the defendants, including Yee's lawyer James Lassart, were not satisfied.
"The firearms charges are going to be extremely prejudicial. The government has acquired 50 to 70 different firearms that, undoubtedly to some degree, there is going to be an attempt to introduce those," Lassart said. "It's the kind of thing that does not cancel from someone's mind if they're sitting in the courtroom."
The government's indictment claims that Yee, who sought to retire debt from his failed 2011 San Francisco mayoral bid and raise money for his subsequent Secretary of State campaign, agreed to vote on certain legislation, help phony companies get state grants and contracts, and offered to import guns from a suspected terrorist group in the Philippines in exchange for campaign donations.
Jackson is accused of arranging the meetings and soliciting the donations. Yee and Jackson have pleaded not guilty.
Both were arrested during an FBI raid in March 2014. The raid also ensnared Jackson's son Brandon and sports agent Marlon Sullivan, who are charged with narcotics conspiracy, murder for hire and unlicensed firearms dealing. Breyer said they will be tried with the elder Jackson and Yee, but only on the weapons charge. Two dozen other defendants, including marquee defendant Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, leader of the Chinese American fraternal organization Chee Kung Tong, are still awaiting trial.
But Breyer has been adamant from the outset about breaking case into manageable parts. "I can't have 28 defendants. This isn't Nuremberg," he said Thursday.
Referring to the indictment, Breyer said, "When I went through it, I went with the concern of how Mr. Yee would be unduly prejudiced. But as I recall the indictment did tie in as an allegation certain evidentiary facts which support the position that some, not all, of the weapons violations do involve Mr. Yee."
Yet Lassart said that Yee will be prejudiced by the "Uzis and AK47s that are going to be laying around the courtroom," even though guns were never found during FBI sweeps of Yee's house or office in Sacramento. "The impact of these weapons, and I'm very familiar of how a jury reacts to a weapon in the courtroom, you put 50 of them and it looks like the senator is absolutely engaged in that activity."
He added, "We understand the corruption charge and the single conspiracy discussion. I suggest it should be a trial of Keith and my client alone."
Brandon Jackson's lawyer Tony Tamburello also protested.
"There's going to be a parade of guns, a shower of guns," Tamburello said. "This is such an emotional thing, these guns, so how are they going to separate political corruption and guns? You're putting together an emotional situation that the jury is not going to be able to separate and will prejudice everyone in this case, and that's what the government wants."
James Brosnahan, lawyer for Keith Jackson, also said the political corruption charges should be tried separately.
"You said a jury might think this isn't really criminal. Well this is a great country and they should have that chance. They shouldn't have guns in front of them. You have a right to make political contributions and petition your government. That's your right. That deserves separate attention by this court," Brosnahan told Breyer.
But the judge held fast to his plan, again noting that he had already separated out the narcotics and murder for hire charges, in which Yee had no evidentiary involvement.
Jury selection will begin on June 1, but the trial will not start before June 22, he said.
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