Reviewing the questionnaires filled out on Tuesday by 135 potential jurors in the corruption trial of former Mayor Sharpe James, Judge William J. Martini of United States District Court said he was struck by the unusual number who had checked the box for Question 36. Many, it seemed, thought they might be swayed by racial, religious or ethnic bias, or by “personal sympathy” or “personal dislike” for Mr. James, his co-defendant or the lawyers and witnesses in the case.
That should hardly be surprising with a larger-than-life figure like Mr. James, whose outspoken, aggressive, irrepressible personality dominated Newark civic affairs for the two decades he ran City Hall.
He is charged with using his power to help a female companion defraud a city program intended to rehabilitate Newark’s ailing neighborhoods, but the trial will also stand as a verdict on the reign of Mr. James, who is alternately seen as a heroic figure in Newark’s recovery from its 1967 riots and as a symbol of the state’s particularly self-serving brand of politics.
“We have surveys that show that 53 percent of the public thinks that he’s guilty even though they haven’t heard the evidence,” Thomas R. Ashley, one of Mr. James’s lawyers, said in an interview as jury selection began.
Readers of this blog will probably neither be shocked nor surprised about this. Though potential jurors haven’t heard the evidence, James lived the high life as one of the highest paid public officials pulling in a CEO-level six-figure salary while running one of the poorest cities in the country for twenty years. Even during the nineties, a time which was unprecedented in economic expansion for the United States, Newark languished under his watch.