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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sterling and Prosecutors Spar Over Jury Issues

(CN) - Before the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was postponed last week pending a government appeal, both parties proposed voir dire and jury instructions, offering a glimpse of the issues that will drive the case once it gets off the ground.

Both parties' proposed voir dire focused on the fine line between whistle-blowing and releasing potentially dangerous classified information. They plan to interrogate the jurors' personal relations, especially regarding the CIA, and their personal opinions about intelligence work. The government asked, specifically, "Do you believe a person who believes that he or she is a 'whistle-blower' is entitled to disclose classified information?"

Prosecutors also wished to know what information jurors knew about other cases of whistle-blowing, whether they or anyone they knew had provided an anonymous tip to a newspaper, and if they had any opinions about whether the United States classifies too much information.

Sterling's voir dire asked, "Do you believe that a former government official who provides classified information to a reporter should be prosecuted for espionage even if the government brings no charges against the reporter or his or her publisher?"

Additionally, Sterling queried whether jurors had any opinions about the CIA's disinformation programs, the use of "human assets" to secretly gather information about foreign countries, or whether Iran should be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.

In his proposed jury instructions, Sterling advanced just two directions. The first said that a defendant must be acquitted if the "information at issue constitutes the type of leak that poses no conceivable threat to national security but only threatens to embarrass one or another high government official."

The second dealt with the matter of jurisdiction, and said that the jury must acquit Sterling if the government cannot prove that either Sterling or New York Times reporter Risen was in the Eastern District of Virginia when Sterling disclosed the national defense information.

In contrast, the government proposed a total of 49 jury instructions, many of which define terms of the claims against Sterling. None of the instructions contained the word "embarrass" or "jurisdiction," though the first few instructions mention that Sterling is accused of having committed the crime in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Instruction 10 seemed to respond to Sterling's first instruction by telling the jury to decide if "the defendant knew facts from which he concluded or reasonably should have concluded that the document, writings, or intangible information relating to the national defense could be used for the prohibited purposes."

Several instructions mentioned that "the disclosure of information relating to national defense need not cause actual damage to the United States. Potential damage to the United States is sufficient."

The government's instructions told jurors that they may read Chapter 9 of James Risen's book "State of War" in its entirety during their deliberations.

They also reminded jurors that "good motive alone is never a defense where the act done or omitted is a crime. One may not commit a crime and be excused from criminal liability because he desired that ultimate good would result from his criminal act."

The government's appeal pertains to U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema's decision to strike two expert witnesses. A new trial will be scheduled when the 4th Circuit makes its decision.

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