Jury seated in JT Burnette trial
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Tallahassee businessman JT Burnette will stand trial on federal charges of extortion and racketeering starting Monday.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle recently told attorneys that despite intense publicity, he is confident attorneys can find an impartial jury from the pool of 50 potential jurors summoned in the case.
As of 12:45 p.m., a jury has been seated. It’s made up of 10 women and four men, including the alternate jurors. Court will reconvene at 2 p.m.
Burnette is one of three people indicted and arrested in a federal corruption probe that has already led to guilty pleas from former Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox and associate Paige Carter-Smith.
Both are expected to testify against Burnette.
Maddox and Carter-Smith were indicted together in December 2018. Burnette was named in an initial indictment in May 2019, and a superseding indictment with more corruption allegations against him was filed in October 2019.
Testimony could begin as early as Tuesday and the trial could last three to four weeks, attorneys told a judge at a recent hearing.
Judge Hinkle told attorneys he would be modifying the traditional structure for jury selection, starting with learning what potential jurors know about the case before delving into their individual backgrounds.
Before the trial, Burnette’s defense team requested the court to provide headphones for the jury, judge and legal teams, so they can better hear and understand undercover tapes expected to be introduced as evidence during the trial.
Attorneys debated whether the headphones should be allowed during their Monday morning meeting. Prosecutors argued they would be “cumbersome” for jurors, and also pointed out that the transcripts will be scrolling on a screen.
The defense said there’s “nothing more important” than the jury hearing their client’s conversations, adding “how it’s said is as important as what is said.”
Judge Hinkle decided to start the trial without headphones, but the court will keep them on standby if there are issues.
Burnette is accused of facilitating tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from companies seeking to do business with the City of Tallahassee in exchange for favorable votes by Commissioner Maddox.
Among them, grand jury indictments claim, Burnette met with representatives of “Company F,” which served as a front for undercover FBI agents posing as real estate and medical marijuana entrepreneurs.
The indictment contends Burnette told Company F representatives that he could “deliver the politics” and help them get approval for a real estate development. The indictment contends Burnette set up a deal with Company F to pay Commissioner Maddox $10,000 a month through a consulting agreement with Governance Inc. The indictment shows four of those payments between November 2016 and February 2017.
The indictment contends that Burnette later told Company F representatives not to stop sending checks to Maddox because “Maddox can kill deals.” The indictment contends Burnette told them they had “opened the door and now can’t close it, as Maddox will f--- you out of spite.”
Prosecutors intend to call 14 witnesses to testify against Burnette over the span of two weeks. Defense attorneys say they’ll need a week to ten days to present their case.
It’s not clear yet if Burnette intends to take the stand and testify in his own defense.
Judge Hinkle said the courtroom will be open to the public, and he’ll be prepared to arrange an overflow room if too many people show up to watch the high-profile trial.
WCTV will have a crew in the courtroom and share live updates on Eyewitness News at 5 and 6.
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