The Mitchell and Stans trial
Culled from the ranks of the biased, the unwilling and those dismissed on a challenge of counsel, eight men and four women (with five men and a woman as alternates) have been chosen to sit in judgment of former Attorney General John N. Mitchell and former Secretary of Commerce Maurice H. Stans. They are accused of trying to block a U.S. investigation into the affairs of fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco and are being tried in federal court in New York.
To men accustomed to power and high office the jurors must seem a curious set of peers to be judged by. Middle-aged and middle-class, men and women of homely occupations, none could reasonably have expected to reach such eminence in the ordinary course of their lives. One is a Western Union messenger, another a subway conductor, a third an apartment house superintendent from the Bronx. There is a telephone installer, with four policemen as relatives, who was once arrested as a “youthful offender.” There is a postal employee, a yardman, a teller.
Chosen after a week of questioning behind closed doors and shielded from news of the latest Watergate indictments, the jurors will be sequestered in a Manhattan hotel while the trial continues over the next several weeks. As salary they’ll earn $20 a day.
All juries are prisoners of their deliberations—none more so than the 23-member Watergate grand jury that was impaneled more than 21 months ago and remains bound to its historic assignment. The chief of the Watergate 23 is the panel’s goateed, court-appointed foreman, 46-year-old Vladimir Pregelj (pronounced pray-gull), an economist for the Library of Congress. One of 10 men and only six whites on the jury, Pregelj is a bachelor and a naturalized citizen—a native of Yugoslavia—who still speaks with a heavy accent. Instructed by Judge John Sirica not to talk to the press about the deliberations, he has nonetheless lately been nursing some grievances aloud. He denounces as “poppycock” reports that he was passed over for promotion at his job because of his extended commitment to Watergate. “I write reports,” he says, “and when I don’t write reports I can’t move forward in my job. I was not ‘passed over.’ ”
However he chooses to put it, of course, prolonged service has meant personal sacrifice. Pregelj continued to be paid by the library, but several jurors have suffered financially. One was fired from her job, and another was pressured into quitting. Last fall Pregelj researched the statutes and discovered that jurors sitting over an extended period were entitled to be paid $25 a day rather than the $20 they had been receiving. Although the lawyer for federal court administrators has insisted the $25 cannot be paid retroactively, as the jurors feel it should be, Pregelj hopes to obtain the money through administrative channels without resorting to litigation. Known among his friends as a staunch anti-communist, he tends to be stoical about his duties as grand juror. The work is “difficult, interesting and important,” he says. “It’s a job, like serving in the army. You do the best you can.”