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Jury selection moves forward in case against Spota, McPartland

Former Suffolk County district attorney Thomas Spota and

Former Suffolk County district attorney Thomas Spota and Christopher McPartland, arrive at federal court in Central Islip on Monday, April 1, 2019. McPartland was scheduled for a status conference before United States District Judge Joan M. Azrack. Spota is charged with conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and obstruct an official proceeding. Credit: James Carbone

Jury selection moved forward Tuesday in the federal obstruction case against former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and a top aide, Christopher McPartland as the Nov. 12 trial date set by the judge looms.

Spota and McPartland are accused of attempting to help cover up former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke’s beating of the man who broke into his unmarked departmental SUV and stole a duffel bag. 

Both Spota, 78, of Mt. Sinai, and McPartland, 53, of Northport, have pleaded not guilty. The potential jurors who came to the federal courthouse in Central Islip Tuesday supplement some 300 potential jurors called there last week.

U.S. District Judge Joan Azrack has said she intends to start the trial Nov. 12, after jury selection is completed.

Given the publicity that the case has garnered, Azrack has indicated that she wants in advance to whittle the potential pool down to a small number who have been screened for possible prejudice or an inability to serve because of prior commitments.

As part of this process, both Tuesday’s and last week’s potential jurors were introduced to the defendants and their attorneys,and asked to fill out a questionnaire about their backgrounds and attitudes towards those involved in the case.

The questionnaire also asked potential jurors about their relationship, if any, to about 100 people whose names may come up the trial or be witnesses.

Among the names were several prominent politicians, including current County Suffolk County Executve Steve Bellone,  former County Executive Steve Levy, former Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), and Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

But federal prosecutors, in court papers, have said their case does not revolve around prominent politicians but rather police officers, police union officials and members of the district attorney’s staff.

The questionnaire also asked potential jurors about their attitude to alcohol abuse and psychological problems, which could be a reflection of an issue affecting someone in the case. Several of the people named on the list of 100 people practice psychiatry or deal with the neurobiology of emotions, according to their websites.

Afterward, Azrack held a sealed hearing to discuss motions the parties had made. The hearing was sealed from the public and the press, the judge said, to prevent jurors from being exposed to potential evidence or witnesses that may not show up in the trial, the judge said.

While the courtroom was sealed, a notice said the session was a Daubert hearing. This is held to determine if an expert witness has the background or knowledge to testify at trial about the applicability of scientific issues, such as medical subjects.

Burke was released from federal prison last year after serving most of a 46-month prison term after pleading guilty to obstruction and civil rights violations in connection with his beating of Christopher Loeb.    

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