Update: A jury of eight women and four men was chosen Monday for Sooner Tea Party leader Al Gerhart's blackmail trial.
Jury selection began Monday in the unusual blackmail trial of Sooner Tea Party leader Al Gerhart.
The case is unusual because Gerhart, a carpenter, admits he sent a threatening email to a state senator last year in an effort to get legislation passed.
At issue is whether what he did is illegal. He claims that what he did is constitutionally protected free speech and that it is comparable to the political pressuring that goes on all the time at the Oklahoma Capitol.
The trial in Oklahoma County District Court is expected to last three or four days.
Gerhart’s attorneys have subpoenaed some state legislators to be defense witnesses.
“I’ve been told that we are being asked to come in and testify as expert witnesses on the legislative process,” said Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs.
Dorman, who is running for governor, and Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, are asking the trial judge to excuse them from testifying.
“I don’t want to miss any potential vote that might come up that I would need to be at the Capitol,” Dorman said.
Others subpoenaed to testify for the defense include Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne; Sen. Bill Brown, R-Broken Arrow; and Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie.
Gerhart, 55, of Oklahoma City, is charged with two felonies — blackmail and violating the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act.
Gerhart sent the email on March 26, 2013, to state Sen. Cliff Branan, R-Oklahoma City.
In the email, Gerhart promised to make the senator a laughingstock unless the Senate Energy and Environment Committee passed a bill dealing with a United Nations’ plan.
Branan is chairman of the committee.
Misspelling one word, Gerhart wrote: “Branan, Get that bill heard or I will make sure you regret not doing it. I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don’t hear that this bill will be heard and passed. We will dig into your past, yoru family, your associates and once we start on you there will be no end to it. This is a promise.”
Under state law, blackmail can involve a written communication that threatens to expose information about someone, “which would in any way subject such person to the ridicule or contempt of society.”
The bill ended up not being heard before the Senate Energy Committee because the Senate sponsor pulled it from consideration.
“It was not your normal email,” Branan testified at a preliminary hearing last year. “I felt like my two young children are out of bounds, as well as my wife.”
Branan is now running for a seat on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Gerhart’s defense attorney, Kevin D. Adams, of Tulsa, called the case a political prosecution.
“I feel like this is motivated by Branan’s desire to get rid of somebody who has been a political problem for him,” the defense attorney said.
He said legislators pressure each other all the time, particularly those who are the majority whips of the Senate and the House.
“That’s what the whip does ... keep the hounds in the pack. The majority whip is the enforcer of the party,” the attorney said.
If convicted of both felonies, Gerhart faces up to 10 years in prison and $15,000 in fines.