Opening statements scheduled in trial of former UMC chief

Opening statements begin today in the criminal trial of ousted University Medical Center chief Lacy Thomas.

County prosecutors and Thomas' defense lawyer spent less than four hours Monday whittling the jury pool down from about 75 people to the seven men and seven women who will decide Thomas' fate. The 14 jurors include two alternates.

Thomas, who was hired to turn around the financially struggling public hospital, is being tried on five counts of theft and five counts of misconduct by a public officer. All are felonies.

Authorities contend Thomas enriched friends from Chicago with no-work hospital contracts that cost UMC as much as $10 million.

Questioning of potential jurors was uneventful, though Thomas' lawyer, Dan Albregts, did object to the removal of one of the black potential jurors. Thomas is black.

Prosecutors removed the juror as one of their peremptory challenges, which allow the removal of potential jurors without giving a reason.

Albregts challenged the removal under Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case that prohibits the dismissal of jurors because of their race.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Mitchell said the juror's removal was not because of race but because of his negative feelings toward police and prosecutors, which he outlined in a juror questionnaire.

District Judge Michael Villani found the reasoning met the legal requirement and denied Albregts' challenge.

The only other two black potential jurors also were dismissed -- one for a medical issue and the other because of a schooling conflict.