Burke lawyers want to question jurors about Israel-Hamas war after judge refuses to block comments about Jewish people

Citing demonstrations at Federal Plaza, defense attorneys warn the issue is “just going to create havoc for the court, and all of us, because it’s not going away.”

SHARE Burke lawyers want to question jurors about Israel-Hamas war after judge refuses to block comments about Jewish people
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Then-Ald. Ed Burke (14th) walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Tuesday morning, June 4, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times, Sun-Times Media

Finding that “prejudices may cut in any direction,” a federal judge has ruled that comments made by former Ald. Edward M. Burke about Jewish people may be heard by jurors during his corruption trial next month, despite tensions over the war between Israel and Hamas.

But Burke’s attorneys told U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall on Monday that news about the war is “only going to get worse,” and they said they’d be submitting questions for potential jurors on the topic ahead of Burke’s Nov. 6 trial.

Citing demonstrations that have been held across from the Dirksen Federal Courthouse at Federal Plaza, defense attorney Joseph Duffy warned the issue is “just going to create havoc for the court, and all of us, because it’s not going away.”

Meanwhile, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker pointed out “this is not a situation the government created.”

During the feds’ years-long investigation of Burke, the once-powerful City Council member was recorded allegedly explaining why he needed to leverage his position on the Council to get tax work for his private law firm from a Jewish developer.

Burke was allegedly recorded saying, “Well, you know as well as I do, Jews are Jews, and they’ll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else unless … there’s a reason for them to use a Christian.”

The comments first became public in 2021. U.S. District Judge Robert Dow previously denied a bid to strike it from Burke’s indictment. However, Burke’s lawyers earlier this month asked Kendall, who inherited the case from Dow, to reconsider the issue in light of the war overseas.

Kendall said she would do so, but she denied the request over the weekend. Noting that Burke’s request focused on a “heightened sense of sympathy toward Jewish people,” Kendall wrote in her ruling “that sympathy is not universal.”

“In fact, there is evidence of a rise in antisemitic incidents following Hamas’s attack,” Kendall wrote. She concluded, “Now as ever, prejudices may cut in any direction.”

Burke’s defense team responded to the ruling at the end of a lengthy hearing Monday. Duffy warned the judge that demonstrations responding to the war will likely continue during Burke’s trial, and he insisted jurors won’t be able to avoid them. He also tried to downplay the significance of Burke’s words in the context of the case.

However, Streicker insisted it was more than “just a stray comment.” Kendall also said it would be difficult to remove the comment from the trial because “it’s in reference to why [Burke] acted in a certain way in getting the type of business that he did.”

Still, the judge said she would consider the questions Burke’s lawyers want to ask potential jurors.

Burke is accused of using his seat on the City Council to steer business to his private law firm, Klafter & Burke, amid schemes that involved the Old Post Office, a Burger King at 41st Street and Pulaski Road, and a Binny’s Beverage Depot on the Northwest Side.

He is also accused of threatening to block a fee increase at the Field Museum because it didn’t respond when he recommended his goddaughter as an intern.

Also set to face trial with Burke are political aide Peter Andrews and developer Charles Cui.

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