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Opening statements in Palin's libel case against the New York Times

NEW YORK — Attorneys for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Thursday argued there was “no link” between their client and a 2011 shooting that left six people dead and an Arizona congresswoman injured, laying out their opening argument in Palin’s long-running libel lawsuit against the New York Times.

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Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, filed the lawsuit against the New York Times in 2017 over an editorial that falsely linked her political activities to a 2011 shooting in Tuscon, Ariz., targeting then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). The editorial erroneously linked Palin’s political action committee, which had distributed a map of electoral targets that placed rifle scope cross hairs over 20 Democrats’ districts, including Giffords’, with the attack.

The former governor’s trial had been scheduled to begin Jan. 24 but was postponed after Palin, who is not vaccinated against Covid-19, tested positive for the virus.

Palin’s attorney Shane Vogt told the Manhattan federal courtroom in opening statements that his team intended to prove that James Bennet, the former editorial editor at the New York Times, recklessly published the editorial and that the piece included false and damaging statements about Palin.

“There was no link established between Governor Palin and that shooting,” Vogt said. “There was no link that demonstrated that Governor Palin was responsible for the death of six people.”

In opening statements, both the plaintiff and defense lawyers addressed the correction issued by the New York Times on the editorial that said it “incorrectly described a map distributed by a political action committee before that shooting. It depicted electoral districts, not individual Democratic lawmakers, beneath stylized cross hairs.”

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An attorney for the Times and Bennet, David Axelrod, said that after realizing readers assumed, because of the editorial, that the 2017 congressional baseball shooter acted because of the map, Bennet and the paper issued a correction.

“As soon as he realized how some people were understanding that editorial, the Times recognized it made a mistake and immediately began the correction process,” he said.

The defense argued in its opening statement that the purpose of the editorial was to address “inflammatory rhetoric” and gun policy.

“Bennet and the [editorial] board were especially conscious of not writing a one-sided piece,” Axelrod said. “The goal is to hold both political parties accountable, the political left and the political right, they are both responsible for inflammatory rhetoric unnecessarily demonizing the political enemies.”

It took just over an hour for Judge Jed Rakoff to select a jury in the case. The judge seated nine people as jurors: six women and three men. Rakoff has said his plan was to have enough people for the six-person jury used in federal court civil cases, along with three alternates.

A total of 82 people were assembled as potential jurors in a pair of large rooms at the courthouse. Palin, Bennet, the lawyers and the judge filed into one of the rooms just after 10:30 a.m., while other potential jurors watched via video.

Few if any among the potential jurors seemed to recognize Palin, who was wearing a black mask. Some rose briefly from their socially-distance seats and craned their necks to take a closer look at Palin.

“The parties in this case are well known,” Rakoff said. The judge, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, said jurors might have opinions about Palin or the Times, but needed to put those aside. “That’s an irrelevance,” he said.

After the judge told the group the jury’s job would be to “calmly, coldly look at the facts,” few jurors signaled any concern about doing so. But several potential jurors asked to speak to the judge privately and then were excused.

No public mention was made to the jury about Palin’s recent Covid infection. The judge did ask if any potential jurors had seen press coverage about the case, but he did not ask the group if they’d seen numerous media reports in recent days critical of Palin for dining out at New York City restaurants despite her positive coronavirus test.

One woman who was dismissed as a juror said she was a nurse working on a hospital Covid unit and wanted to be excused because of the impact on her team if she had to serve on the trial, which is expected to take up to two weeks.

One potential juror was reading former first lady Michelle Obama’s autobiography, “Becoming,” but tucked it into a bag as jury selection began.

The judge, who ran through only 17 people before seating the jury, sent the vast majority of those called home, telling them they’d “dodged the bullet.”

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