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Jury selection starts, then stops in Huguette Clark estate trial

By Bill Dedman

Investigative Reporter, NBC News

NEW YORK — Jury selection began Thursday morning in the trial to determine who will inherit the $300 million estate of Huguette M. Clark, the reclusive heiress to a copper mining fortune. But the proceedings were soon halted so that the judge could rule on a procedural matter.

The reclusive heiress Huguette Clark poses in a Japanese print dress in about 1943, when she was 37. Her last will and testament left none of her $300 million fortune to her relatives.

An hour after jury selection began, Surrogate Judge Nora S. Anderson called a halt in order to hear arguments on whether the largest beneficiary of the will -- the Bellosguardo Foundation, a new arts charity established by the will at the Clark summer home in Santa Barbara, Calif. -- can be represented in court and address the jury.

It was not immediately clear when the arguments would be scheduled or when Anderson would rule.

Before the proceedings were halted, lawyers were warned that trial could take six to eight weeks, which means it could take a couple of days to pick a jury. More than 20 lawyers were present in the state Supreme Court building in Lower Manhattan, familiar to viewers of “Law and Order,” including jury consultants for the family and for the beneficiaries of the will. 

If the case proceeds to testimony, that would occur in Surrogate's Court, next to City Hall. 

As jury selection got underway, several prospective jurors nodded in recognition when told the case is about a reclusive 104-year-old woman who lived in hospital. Others said they'd heard nothing. 

The trial had been put off for two days to allow settlement negotiations. Attorneys said the parties got close but couldn't reach a deal on Wednesday. The office of the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, tried to broker a settlement. His office's Charities Bureau has made previous attempts, but Clark's relatives, who are challenging her last will and testament, have not been able to find common ground with the beneficiaries named in the will. Schneiderman's office had no comment.

A settlement is still possible, attorneys said, during jury selection or the rest of the trial. Few estate cases go to trial.

Huguette (pronounced "oo-GET") Marcelle Clark was the youngest daughter of former U.S. Sen. William Andrews Clark (1839-1925), one of the copper kings of Montana and one of the richest men of the Gilded Age, a railroad builder and founder of Las Vegas. Born in Paris in 1906, Huguette was a shy painter and doll collector who spent her last 20 years living in simple hospital rooms. She attracted the attention of NBC News in 2009 because her fabulous homes in Connecticut, California and New York sat unoccupied but carefully maintained.

Clark's will stated emphatically that none of her money should go to her relatives, who are descended from the first marriage of her father. The relatives challenged the will, claiming it was the product of fraud, that Clark was incompetent and that the signing ceremony was faulty.

The beneficiaries include a new charitable foundation for the arts in California, based at the Clark summer home, called Bellosguardo, in Santa Barbara; Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, where she died at age 104; her private-duty registered nurse, who already received more than $30 million in gifts while Clark was alive; a goddaughter; and Clark's attorney, accountant, doctor and other employees.

Bill Dedman is the co-author of the new book "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune." The co-author is Paul Clark Newell Jr., Huguette Clark's cousin, who is not one of the relatives in line for her fortune if the will is overturned. Newell may be called as a witness in the trial to describe his telephone conversations and correspondence with Clark.

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