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Selection of jurors begins in Buie trial

Photo by Bill Strickland

Photo by Bill Strickland

ALBANY-- Court officials met individually with potential jurors behind closed doors Monday as jury selection began ahead of the trial of Don Buie, a former Albany public official accused of fraud and theft.

More than 60 potential jurors filed into courtroom 226 at the Dougherty County Courthouse shortly before 9:30 a.m. Monday, where they remained as a group until they broke for lunch at 12:30 p.m.

At 1:30 p.m., groups of six jury candidates went into the courtroom, which was closed to the media and the public, where they were then interviewed individually by court officials who included defendant Don Buie's attorney Johnnie Graham, prosecutor Christopher Cohilas, about how much local media coverage surrounding Buie's investigation had impacted them.

Marshall took the step of barring the public and the media from the proceedings Monday without citing reason or a hearing with representatives of the media or public, which media law expert and Georgia Press Association Chief legal representative David Hudson said was an unusual move.

"All court proceedings, including voir dire (the individual questioning of jurors) must be open unless there is a hearing, evidence and a court order justifying closure," he told The Albany Herald.

The closure of voir dire proceedings from the public isn't a new idea. Earlier this year, a group of journalists asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a Georgia Supreme Court decision allowing for voir dire procedures to occur behind closed doors.

In a 5-2 ruling in August, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that DeKalb County Judge Linda Hunter did not err when she removed spectators during the voir dire of a defendant charged with a drug charge, according to an article posted on Law.com.

Marshall told reporters via bailiff Monday that she would open the proceedings once a jury was selected.

Jury selection is expected to continue this morning with a jury possibly impaneled as soon as this afternoon.

Buie is being tried on fraud and theft charges stemming from his actions while in charge of downtown redevelopment. Buie was the city's downtown manager and also served as ADICA's chief executive officer.

Three co-defendants in the case -- business owner Tim Washington; Buie's estranged wife, Shanon Buie, and Buie's former girlfriend and ADICA contractor Nicole Brown -- have entered plea agreements with prosecutors.

In a related matter, ADICA board member Lajuana Woods has agreed to resign her position and pay back a $50,000 facade grant she received from Buie while serving on the board rather than face indictment by a grand jury on what District Attorney Greg Edwards said was "misfeasance of office," a misdemeanor charge.

Effective Dec. 9, which was ADICA's last meeting of the year, Woods' resignation comes at the end of her appointment.

So far, she has made each of her promised $2,500 monthly payments with the exception of December's payment, ADICA officials say. That payment is due by Dec. 31. Beginning in January, those payments double to $5,000 per month until the total is paid off, which should be before the end of the third quarter of 2010, Edwards said.

"In this case our goals were met," Edwards told reporters Monday. "We were seeking to have her removed from office and pay back the money that she had accepted and she has agreed to do both."

The decision spares Woods possible jail time -- up to one year for a misdemeanor -- and, once Buie is tried, will be the last loose end to tie up concerning ADICA, Edwards said.