The trial case against Paul Manafort over money laundering and tax evasion has entered jury deliberations. Kevin Johnson reports from Alexandria, Va.
ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Jurors now hold Paul Manafort’s fate.
The former campaign manager for President Donald Trump could spend the rest of his life behind bars, walk free or anything in between. Over the course of the 12-day trial, jurors heard in excruciating detail the details of Manafort’s alleged scheme as his lawyers worked to poke holes in the case.
Each day, testimony from witnesses and documents seemed to provide new bombshells as prosecutors worked to unravel the confusing string of foreign bank accounts and money made during Manafort’s lobbying for the government of Ukraine.
But now, it will be up to the jurors – six men and six women – to decide who they believe and whether prosecutors did enough to prove the 18 counts laid against Manafort in the tax and bank fraud trial.
Here are some of the points that could lay heavy on the jury’s mind and help sway the case.
1. Credibility of Rick Gates
Manafort’s attorneys took direct aim at the credibility of Rick Gates, Manafort’s former partner and the government’s star witness, multiple times throughout the trial – even highlighting it again in closing arguments.
Gates pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiracy and lying to the FBI as part of a deal requiring him to testify against Manafort.
During his testimony, Gates admitted to a stealing money from Manafort and falsifying documents for him. He even admitted some of the money was used to quietly finance a secret relationship with a mistress in London.
He described his role in the alleged plot, falsifying loan documents to help Manafort acquire millions and the elaborate operation he and Manafort allegedly structured in Cyprus to use shell companies to secretly accept millions of dollars for their work in Ukraine.
But Manafort’s attorneys painted Gates as the true villain and aimed to discredit his testimony by discrediting his character. They suggested that Gates – not Manafort – controlled the foreign bank accounts used to hide millions of dollars from federal tax authorities.
“The government was so desperate to make a case against Manafort, that they made a deal with Rick Gates,” Manafort’s attorney, Kevin Downing, argued.
While Gates is obviously a flawed witness, prosecutors across the U.S. have used much worse, said Pat Cotter, a longtime white-collar defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who worked to prosecute legendary New York mobster John Gotti.
Cotter said he’d once used a witness involved in 19 murders and for the most part, jurors seem to understand that it’s needed.
“Think about it: If you need someone to take you through the sewer, you’re going to have to use a rat because rats know the sewers,” he said.
Quick pace of trial
White-collar cases like that of Manafort are almost always confusing and convoluted.
Jurors without backgrounds in finance often have difficulty following the intricacies of foreign banking, shell companies and falsified bank loans. Hundreds of documents were displayed before the jury and more than two dozen people testified.
But the quick pace of Manafort’s trial could make their job even harder.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III has a reputation for its “rocket docket” and that kept during Manafort’s proceedings. Ellis rushed prosecutors through the examinations of some of their witnesses while attempting to portray Manafort’s lavish lifestyle, which they contend was supported using wire transfers from secret offshore accounts to hide his acquired wealth.
Ellis also limited breaks and had prosecutors plow through their case and evidence.
“You’ve got a judge here who treats time like it’s a rare metal,” Cotter said. “I don’t have a lot of respect for that.”
He said prosecutors were able to make a good case in the allotted time and in many ways, this case isn’t as intricate as some other white-collar cases, which could make things a bit easier for jurors.
But, Cotter added, “I don’t think justice and speed go together. Justice should dominate over a quick pace in every trial.”
No case by defense
It might have seemed a bit weird that Manafort’s attorneys didn’t call a single witness or offer any evidence to vouge for him. Could that make a difference to the jury?
Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director who worked under Mueller at FBI, said Manafort’s attorneys could have left the jury thinking there wasn’t any defense at all for the accusations.
“They’re left with questioning what’s the counterargument here because there was no case made that really suggests his innocence,” Hosko said.
Cotter said this is a tactic used frequently by defense attorneys because they’re relying on prosecutors, who have the burden of proving their case beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Defense attorneys many times simply poke holes in these cases instead of providing new witnesses or evidence.
There’s a school of thought behind this reasoning, Cotter says, “if you don’t have a terrific witness or piece of evidence, don’t submit it.”
“You run the risk of looking pathetic,” he added.
He pointed to the hundreds of documents used as evidence by prosecutors and the 27 witnesses called. If Manafort’s attorney called someone or offered in some evidence, it runs the risk of looking like a competition, one that they would have lost.
It also wasn’t strange for Manafort to not take the witness stand, Cotter said. The trial would have shifted from being reliant on prosecutors proving Manafort’s guilt to jurors simply judging the case on Manafort’s character and whether they believed him.
Judge chastising prosecutors
Ellis was picking on prosecutors and their strategy before the trial even started.
“You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” Ellis said during a May pretrial hearing. “What you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment. …The vernacular is to ‘sing.'”
Ellis is known for having complete control over his courtroom while also bringing a sense of wry humor to the bench, even in the most serious of deliberations. He’s worked to maintain fairness for both prosecutors and Manafort’s attorneys but several interactions in front of jurors could have left a lasting impact.
Jurors tend to view both prosecutors and the defense as partisan. Both sides are trying to convince you to believe their way. A judge is viewed as fair and viewing the situation from both sides so that’s where many jurors place their trust.
Could Ellis’ comments stick with jurors and affect their decision?
Ellis interrupted prosecutors multiple times during their questioning and even accused lead prosecutors Greg Andres of crying after being yelled at in the courtroom.
“Look at me when you’re talking to me,” Ellis said to Andres, according to the court transcript.
“I’m sorry, judge, I was,’” Andres said. “No, you weren’t,” Ellis said. “You were looking down.”
“I don’t want to get yelled at again by the court for having some facial expression when I’m not doing anything wrong, but trying my case,” Andres said.
Ellis went on to accuse Andres being “frustrated” and of having “tears in your eyes.” Andres denied it.
Cotter said it looked like Ellis was picking mainly on prosecutors because the defense didn’t make a case, thus wasn’t doing the majority of questioning and talking.
Cotter said while the behavior wasn’t excusable, it could have three effects on the jury: the jurors could have pity on prosecutors and feel the judge was bullying them, they could side with prosecutors because of the intense questions, or it won’t have any effect at all.
Public opinion of Mueller, FBI
While Manafort’s trial does not directly deal with his role as Trump’s campaign manager, the president’s shadow has covered this case from the beginning.
The trial is the first brought by special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and is widely thought to be an important test for him and his team.
But could the public’s trust in the FBI and in Mueller bleed over into the jury’s decision making?
Tweets from the president mixed with constant attacks from Republican leadership and Fox News has altered how the public views the FBI and Mueller.
The bureau’s reputation was put to the test with the Hillary Clinton email investigation then again when it opened an investigation into any collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. It again was accused of bias with text messages showing high-level agent Peter Strzok, who was working for Mueller, sent anti-Trump text messages.
“There’s always a risk of this in any case, but in today’s political climate, there’s a much bigger risk here,” Hosko said.
He added: “In a perfect world, this jury would see this case narrowly, stripped down to a man accused of bank fraud and business fraud, and leave out all the politics and the large picture of who he is and what all of this could mean.”
Contributing: Kevin Johnson
Read or Share this story: https://usat.ly/2MmOC2k