Jury selection got off to a rocky start Tuesday in the arms sale trial of a former Soviet military officer known as the Merchant of Death when reporters were initially kept out of the federal courtroom.
U.S. Judge Shira Scheindlin remedied the situation when she was informed an hour into the proceeding that two dozen reporters were kept outside the Manhattan courtroom where a jury was being selected for the trial of Viktor Bout. A court spokeswoman had said there was no room for them.
The trial has attracted heavy interest internationally since Bout was brought to the United States last year after his March 2008 capture in Bangkok, where he had gone for a meeting with U.S. operatives posing as anti-American rebels. His arrest set off a two-year struggle between the United States and Russia that ended when he was transferred to New York for trial.
Bout, 44, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges that carry a potential life sentence, maintaining through his lawyers that he is a legitimate businessman. Bout, blamed for fueling deadly Third World conflicts over the past decade, was arrested in the sting operation organized by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Scheindlin questioned prospective jurors to make sure they could be fair and impartial regardless of what they had heard about the case.
She told a pool of several dozen potential jurors at one point that Bout may have been involved in arms trafficking in Africa many years ago, but that it did not break any U.S. laws. No one said they were bothered by that.
But about two dozen potential jurors raised their hands when they were asked if anyone had heard of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucianarias de Colombia, or FARC, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization operating in Colombia. About three of them said they were bothered by it.
Bout is charged with conspiring to sell millions of dollars in weapons to DEA informants acting as officials of FARC.
One potential juror said she had heard "nothing positive . . . extreme violence." Another said he had heard members of the FARC were "fairly brutal." He was later excused from the jury pool.