WASHINGTON (CNN) - The political future of one of the power houses of the U.S. Senate, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), will most likely rest in the hands of a Washington jury with opening statements in his trial set for Thursday morning. Political and legal experts say there is little doubt Stevens' re-election will be determined by his guilt or innocence. Stevens, 84, was locked in a tight re-election contest with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich even before the indictment against him was returned at the end of July.
Stevens, the longest serving Republican in the Senate, is charged with failing to report on his congressional disclosure forms renovations to his Alaska home, including the creation of a first floor, new garage and a new deck, paid for by the Alaska-based oil services corporation VECO as well as other gifts from the company, such as a new Land Rover which was exchanged for an older car and a gas grill.
Prosecutors allege Stevens received more than $250,000 worth of goods. The seven-term senator is not charged with receiving bribes although prosecutors allege in the indictment "Stevens could and did use his official position and his office on behalf of VECO."
The senator, known in Washington as combative and self-confident, has characteristically not backed down, maintaining his innocence saying he paid for all bills related to the home renovation given to him. His defense attorneys pushed for a quick start to the proceedings knowing the charges would dominate the election campaign.
"I asked for a speedy trial because I wanted one. I'm glad I'm having the chance to have one because I have entered my plea and said I'm innocent of the charges against me. I think the trial will show that," Stevens told reporters last Friday in a news conference in Alaska. "I've urged Alaskans not to make a judgment about this situation until all the evidence is in and told them I have faith in our judicial, justice system and faith in myself."
Some legal experts believe Stevens can beat the charges.
"How is the government going to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew the actual value of these renovations when he had asked, received, and paid for bills for them," former federal prosecutor Michael Levy says explaining the burden facing the Justice Department.
One possible tactic for the defense team, led by veteran attorney Brendan Sullivan, is to portray Stevens, one of the most powerful senators, as a busy incumbent dealing with a multitude of important issues.
"If they paint him somewhat as a very busy or perhaps absent-minded individual who's not focused there you could appeal to several jurors. After all, all of us have a lot going on in our lives, as do these jurors, and that may resonate with some of them," former federal prosecutor Joshua Berman says regarding a possible defense strategy.
Judge Emmet Sullivan this week granted Stevens' lawyers' request for him to miss some court sessions if there were key Senate votes happening.
"He is certainly known for being a very strong-willed man. Now there is a fine line here. You do not want to suggest to jurors or to a judge that you are dissing them," political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says.
Since Stevens will have to be in court most days of the trial, which is expected to last about a month, his ability to fly to Alaska to campaign will be dramatically limited although he did say last week he hoped to come back to the state at least "several times" in October.
As to whether he will take the witness stand himself, he told reporters Friday, "That is up to my lawyers, but that is my intention," although the legal experts CNN spoke to were divided about whether he would testify.
Former prosecutor Berman says Stevens testifying could be the best way to explain away some of the government's key evidence.
"It's gonna be hard for Senator Stevens to get away from the fact that he did receive these things of value. Two, he did not apparently disclose them on his financial form. And three, you've got the VECO executives... who will testify in his trial against him."
The central witness against Stevens will be a former VECO chief executive officer who has pleaded guilty to bribing several Alaska state lawmakers and who was caught by the FBI on undercover video soliciting favors from them.
"Bill Allen is going to be central to this case. He's the primary accuser against Senator Stevens. The government is gonna say that he's finally come forward and is telling the truth about the relationship between Veco and Senator Stevens. The defense is gonna sit there and say this is a man who's got more than a decade of jail time hanging over his head, and the only way he can save his own skin is to sing whatever song the prosecutors want him to sing– and that's all he's doing," former prosecutor Levy says.
Stevens is the first sitting U.S. Senator to face trial since 1981 when Harrison Williams (D-New Jersey) was convicted of bribery and conspiracy.
Opening statements are scheduled to begin at 9:30a.
Eleven women and five men make up the jury of 12 regular and four alternates. The jurors will not be told whether they are alternates until the end of the trial.
- CNN Producer Paul Courson contributed to this story.