The White House Five: A Jury Is Chosen

What do we know — and what can we guess — about the Watergate jurors?

Empty Jury Box Credit: Ron Chapple/Getty

The neighbors think that Thelma Wells is a mighty peculiar lady. Just try to talk to her sometime. "Hi, Mrs. Wells, how are you today?"

"None of your business!"

God only knows what is going on behind those bloodhound eyes in that skull-like face – the neighbors have long since given up trying to find out. The thrice-widowed Mrs. Wells has lived in the same spotless, two-story brick house for 25 of her 68 years and has hardly ever had a conversation lasting over five minutes with anyone on the block. The neighbors say that she sometimes holes up for days at a time, poring over her Rosicrucian literature and her astrology magazines. The only thing that brings her out of the house is her early-morning ritual of washing her prized possession, a used '72 fire-engine red Cadillac.

The Cadillac has gone unwashed for several weeks now. On October 11th, Mrs. Wells joined the 11 other Watergate jurors in an overheated, yellow-brick motel that sits on the rim of a district of tatoo parlors and Go-Go joints in downtown Washington. She and her fellow sequestrees will undoubtedly celebrate Christmas there, and maybe St. Valentine's Day as well. They will live under virtual house arrest, guarded by a platoon of U.S. marshals who will monitor their phone calls, censor their mail and newspapers, and snap off the TV whenever Watergate is mentioned. In exchange for enduring these deprivations, they have been given the power to judge the strength of the case against the Watergate defendants and to determine whether or not those five men, once among the most powerful in America, shall lose their freedom.

Thelma Wells, who never used to read a newspaper or watch a TV news show, is now listening to the White House tapes. Very few people in the history of the world have ever had such an intimate glimpse of a head of state with his pants down. Why should Mrs. Wells and her 11 cohorts, of all the thousands of people on the D.C. voter lists, have been chosen for this task?

The answer is largely a mystery, probably even to the lawyers who allowed Mrs. Wells to get on the jury. In any trial, the jury selection is the first battle between the defense and the prosecution, and the one that may well win or lose the war. The battle is usually fought with faulty intelligence on unfamiliar ground – it is a volley of shots in the dark. Most lawyers will admit that the most carefully selected jury can turn out to be as unpredictable as a pack of hyenas, and even the sociologists, psychologists, hypnotists, body-language experts and market analysts who have recently started to bring their respective disciplines to the game of jury picking have been known to make some horrendous mistakes. The lawyers in this trial made their own seat-of-the-pants decisions, without any coaching from experts. The prosecution, which has a tight case and plenty of gamy evidence, needed only to find 12 reasonable people and to knock off any stubborn, conservative types who might hang the jury. The defense needed about ten passive types and one or two strong-minded holdouts for acquittal.

The process by which the lawyers get to examine the prospective jurors is called the voir dire, and it works like this: Both sides submit long lists of questions for the judge to ask the prospective jurors. The jurors, half terrified, are then marched into the judge's chambers, put under oath, and required to supply such information as the judge sees fit to demand – which is usually a good deal less information than the lawyers had hoped for. The lawyers are then allowed to try to convince the judge to dismiss certain jurors "for cause." At the end of the voir dire, in open court, each side gets to knock off a specified number of jurors with peremptory challenges.

The Watergate trial voir dire was hectic and strained. Judge Sirica was in a hurry to get a jury before Jerry Ford's appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee brought a fresh blast of pretrial publicity, and he was apparently fearful that he might not get any jury at all if he questioned the prospective jurors too rigorously. The judge jettisoned most of the questions submitted by the attorneys, and staunchly refused to probe deeply into the opinions and motivations of the jurors. Some prospective jurors said that they had discussed the case. Sirica declined to probe with whom and in what terms. Others freely admitted that they felt that the five defendants were probably guilty. Still others said that they thought it was unfair to prosecute the defendants in view of the fact that Richard Nixon had received a pardon. Sirica simply listened and went on to ask the one question he considered decisive: Can you put aside your opinions of this case and judge it solely on the basis of the evidence which will be put before you?

If the juror answered yes, he had crossed the Rubicon and entered the final pool of prospective jurors. If he answered no, he was out. Sirica excused some jurors who were challenged because of their apparently feeble intellects, but he consistently turned down adamant requests from both sides to dismiss people who had expressed strong opinions: As long as they swore that they could overcome their prejudices, Sirica let them stay on board. Angry defense lawyers kept popping up to object to the judge's rulings, and Sirica grew testy as the voir dire ground on. At one point, Sirica thought he saw Bob Haldeman making a face after he had overruled a challenge. "I see you don't agree with me," said Sirica, and proceeded to chew out Haldeman for pulling faces. Meanwhile, the prosecutors grew so alarmed at the prospect of ending up with jurors who might balk at convicting the White House Five because of the Nixon pardon, that they filed a public memo expressing their concern.

By Friday, October 11th, after nearly two weeks of closed voir dire, Sirica had collected enough prospective jurors to let the lawyers exercise their peremptories. The defense lawyers used 13 out of their 15 peremptories; the prosecution used five out of six. Obviously, both sides were so scared of some of the prospective jurors sitting out in the pool that they preferred to take their chances with the ones already in the box.

When the smoke had cleared, eight blacks and four whites were left in the jury box. There were three men and nine women. During the voir dire, at least one of the jurors had told the judge that he believed the defendants to be guilty. One or two others had said that they thought it unfair to try the defendants while Nixon got off scot-free with a pardon. The remaining eight had said that they held no firm opinions, but several of the lawyers reportedly believe that some of these jurors might have been lying.

The lawyers may well be right. In almost every voir dire, there are people who are too intimidated, befuddled or pathological to tell the whole truth. They are usually difficult to identify. Even Jay Schulman, a New York sociologist who has had spectacular success in choosing juries for radical defendants like the Berrigans, the Gainesville Eight and the Camden Eight, often finds it hard to spot a liar. "Almost all of the mistakes that we have made in the eight or nine trials that I have worked on had to do with zealots," says Schulman. "We have not been able to pick out and understand zealots – I suppose because they are precisely the kind of people who disguise and dissemble the intensity of their feelings. We've also had trouble reading blue-collar people, because they tend to be unconscious of their own biases and have a hard time communicating them. In surveys, we've found that a large percentage of people – up to 60% – do not believe in the basic principle of presumption of innocence for the defendant. But sometimes a person doesn't realize this when the judge asks him about it in the voir dire. So, either consciously or unconsciously, some people don't tell the truth. After the Camden Eight case, a third of the jurors told us that they had lied in the voir dire."

What may be more important than their truthfulness in the voir dire is their personalities, their backgrounds and what sociologists like to call their status. In the lifeboat atmosphere of a sequestered jury, some people emerge as the natural leaders and others end up as the C-rations. My hunch is that the leaders in this jury will be Marjorie M. Milbourn and Ruth C. Gould, and that they will take the others down the path to conviction. Miss Milbourn is a calm-looking woman of 55, with straight brown hair pulled austerely back from a plain un-made-up face. Educated at the Institute for International Affairs in Geneva, she dedicated 27 years of her life to various metamorphoses of the Marshall Plan, and by the time she retired, she was a ranking official in an AID office that coordinated billions of dollars in foreign aid. Her job often took her to the Commerce Department, the Treasury Department, and to Paris. A relentless worker, she often stayed late at her State Department office, returning to her Watergate apartment well past midnight. Since her retirement in 1972, she has pursued Transcendental Meditation, and on the first day of the trial, she had a private audience with Judge Sirica in order to inform him, somewhat belatedly, that she had corresponded with other Meditationists on the moral implications of the Watergate affair. She also told him that she had stuffed envelopes in the campaign of a presidential candidate in 1972. The attorneys begged Sirica to find out which candidate, but he declined.

Ruth Gould is a handsome, chicly dressed 57-year-old woman with smartly coiffed gray hair who lives in a cloistered townhouse with her grown and fully bearded son. She works in the Business and Industrial Section of the Department of Agriculture readying loan applications from small rural businesses for final approval by her boss. She and Milbourn have enough in common to form the beginnings of a fine friendship, and they both have backgrounds that could make them ideal jurors for the prosecution. They both know how the executive branch of the government should work, as opposed to how it has been working. They have worked in jobs that require a good head for figures, and that may give them an edge on the other jurors in a case that deals heavily with cash transactions. And they are the only members of the jury who possess the kind of intellectual training needed to analyze, boil down and explain a body of evidence so complicated that some of the attorneys stumbled over the facts in their opening statements. In a jury deliberation the people who explain the evidence are the people who run the show.

Then there is John A. Hoffar – another strong personality, one would bet, by the looks of him. Hoffar is a small, sturdily built man with a sickly pallor and slicked-back graying hair. Before his retirement several years ago, he served for 21 years on the Park Police, the second largest of Washington's eight police forces.

During the mammoth Washington protest demonstrations of the Sixties and early Seventies, the Park cops distinguished themselves by their viciousness and general willingness to provoke ugly incidents with anyone who was against the war, had long hair or didn't wear a bra. Maybe John Hoffar was one of the decent men on the force – one doesn't know. Sitting in the jury box, in the seat closest to the witness stand, he stares into space with the stubborn, tight-jawed, oblivious look of a man who has made up his mind. It is easy to imagine that he has already decided to acquit these five representatives of the administration which ordered the most sweeping mass arrests in the nation's history. But other scenarios are just as possible: Maybe he is a true believer in law and order who can hardly wait to apply his principles to five men who covered up a serious crime.

Milbourn, Gould and Hoffar are all Caucasians. The fourth white is Jane N. Ryon, a 63-year-old retired Department of Justice secretary who has so far regarded the trial with a look of constant bafflement and will probably be less than instrumental when the jury sits down to deliberate.

The eight remaining jurors are black, which means that the jury falls just short of reflecting the actual percentage of blacks in the population of Washington. The defense lawyers tried hard to get the trial moved to some other town, partly because they feared that jurors from Washington's black community, which voted overwhelmingly against Nixon in 1972, would not give them a fair shake. The lawyers felt that D.C. blacks would probably be prone to intense peer pressure. There are neighborhoods in this town where a man might not care to show his face if he had just acquitted Bob Haldeman – because he'd know that his wife would be waiting for him on the landing, her arms crossed, shouting: "Get your black ass out of here, nigger! The one chance you're ever gonna get to whump those motherfuckers, and you're too chickenshit to do it."

That will probably never happen to any of the blacks who ended up on this jury. The defense lawyers were careful to use their peremptories to expel any black who smacked of militancy, activism, street cool or funkiness. They also excluded any new arrivals from the South who might still feel bitter over having lost a struggle with rural poverty. The defense attorneys were looking for Uncle Toms, old District types who had long ago made their peace with the Man. Failing that, they wanted nice, stable, lower-middle-class people who might join the NAACP but would never take heed of a Field Marshal Cinque. What they finally got was eight church-going Baptists, all of whom have lived most of their days in the District.

The oldest black man is Dock Reid, a quiet, melancholy-looking 60-year-old who has worked for about 30 years at a small, downtown hotel that caters to tourists and Southern businessmen. He has toted bags, opened car doors, flagged taxis and never uttered a word about politics, at least not to anyone who works in the hotel. "You can't afford to speak your opinion," says one of Reid's coworkers.

The youngest juror is 27-year-old Roy V. Carter, a slim, serious-looking, unfailingly polite man who lives with his mother and has worked for seven years as the chief supply clerk for George Washington University. In his spare time, he serves as a Big Brother, taking ghetto kids five at a time to ball games and even taking one boy with him to California over his summer vacation. Carter is universally well-liked at George Washington, and one of his coworkers volunteered: "The defense couldn't have picked a better juror. There's not a mean bone in Roy's body. He's not vindictive – you won't get any of this race thing or hate-Nixon feeling."

The six black women are: Sandra V. Young, 28, a $6000-a-year pharmacist's assistant and mother of four; Gladys E. Carter, 40, an overseer in the printing room at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a football fan, mother of a teen-age son; Vanetta N. Metoyer, 49, a counter woman at the lunch fountain of a downtown Kresge dimestore; Anita E. King, 57, a matron in the D.C. school system, mother of four grown children, wife of a retired gas pump operator; Helen D. Pratt, 63, formerly a maid at the Peruvian Embassy, now retired.

And then, of course, there is Thelma Wells. Mrs. Wells keeps her own counsel, but there are indications that she possesses a strong personality. The defense attorneys may have pegged Mrs. Wells as a fundamentalist type and left her on the jury on the theory that fundamentalism is the religious equivalent of conservatism. If that was their thinking, it may backfire because the Savonarolas of this world have an uncanny ability to smell sin behind every door. In the Gainesville Eight trial of antiwar veterans, for instance, the prosecution was delighted to get a certain Mary Ann Henderson, the champion Bible thumper of Levy County, Florida, and the mother of an FBI agent. Unfortunately for the government, Mrs. Henderson almost immediately perceived that the devil inhabited the chief informer against the vets and that Satan had also claimed the soul of the chief prosecutor; there was no dissuading her from her adamant stand for acquittal. Mrs. Wells, for her part, appeared to doze through the first days of the trial, showing signs of animation only when she heard the president, John Dean and Bob Haldeman cussing richly on the September 15th tape. At that point, a tight little smile formed on her lips, as if to say, "Just as I suspected – this is a bunch of shameless sinners."

The New York Times of October 19th carried a headline which read: PARKINSON SON INJURED TRYING TO BURN A TURTLE. The accompanying story told how young Parkinson, the nine-year-old son of one of the defendants, had soaked a turtle with gasoline in Rock Creek Park. The lad was attempting to ignite the poor beast when the gasoline can exploded, turning him into a human torch. Fortunately for the boy, a passerby saw him run screaming out of the woods and put him out with a damp sweater. Nobody showed the same consideration for the turtle.

It's a good thing that this jury is sequestered. A number of the jurors are so tortoiselike that they would undoubtedly have identified with the turtle. The resulting prejudice toward defendant Parkinson would have been overwhelming – probably grounds for a mistrial.

It is practically impossible to get a fair trial in a city with as many turtles as Washington has. But what can you do? The main thing is not to let the turtles fool you–especially the human ones on this jury. They look as if they are sleeping peacefully in their shells, totally out of it, not hearing a word of the trial. But only a goddamn fool would try to predict what is really going on inside a turtle's head.