McALLEN - Eight women and four men were chosen Monday to decide whether a bus company owner broke safety laws in the months before one of his buses caught fire outside Dallas, killing 23 nursing home patients during the Hurricane Rita evacuation.

Jim Maples, the owner of Global Limo, is accused in federal court of failing to maintain his buses and conspiring to falsify driving logs intended to ensure that drivers don't fall asleep at the wheel. Opening statements are scheduled to begin today.

Before jury selection was completed, Mr. Maples' attorney, Charles Banker, filed a motion to restrict evidence related to the September 2005 bus fire. The criminal case pertains only to the four months leading up to the bus fire but not to the accident itself.

Judge Ricardo Hinojosa agreed to take up the issue as it arises during the trial. Such fire-related evidence could include a post-accident federal safety audit that found Global to be an imminent danger to the public.

Mr. Banker also sought to question jurors individually about their knowledge of the bus fire. "That's a big issue in this case because of the prior publicity concerning the bus accident," he said. "We're concerned that could influence the jury."

But Judge Hinojosa denied that motion in favor of the routine jury selection process. "I think you're trying to prevent the court from getting into this [the bus fire] to begin with," he said.

If a jury finds that he broke the bus and truck safety laws, he and his company could face more than a million dollars in fines and he could be sentenced to prison, including up to five years for the conspiracy charge.

In the year since the bus fire just before dawn on Sept. 23, 2005, answers and justice have been slow for the 22 survivors and the families of victims.

In May, Global, the travel broker and the mechanic shop that changed a tire before the fire agreed to deposit the maximum coverage of their insurance policies, a total of $12 million, with the court to distribute to the victims.

In August, the National Transportation Safety Board - which investigates transportation disasters and makes recommendations for change - held a public hearing in Washington.

Investigators said the fire probably started when poorly lubricated wheel bearings overheated, igniting the tire and spreading into the cabin, where medical oxygen canisters ruptured, accelerating the blaze.

Board members also came down hard on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for not doing something about Global's maintenance and driver problems sooner. And they noted that small tire fires like the one that ultimately spread into the Global bus are far more common than regulators knew.

The trial is not only significant for victims' families. This week also marks a conclusion for the bus driver, Juan Robles Gutierrez, a Mexican citizen who was cleared of criminal charges but ordered to stay in the U.S. as a material witness.

According to the indictment, the U.S. attorney's office documented several incidents in which drivers marked themselves off-duty when they were really sitting in passenger seats as another driver took the wheel. The drivers were supposed to be getting the eight hours of rest required by law.

According to court documents filed Sept. 12, prosecutors also plan to enter into evidence government safety audits showing that Mr. Maples failed to improve maintenance, inspection and training even after being warned to do so by federal bus inspectors.

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