D.C. residents have every right to be peeved by the assertion of onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s lawyers that their client cannot get a fair federal trial in the city. The Manafort legal team has requested that his trial on money-laundering and conspiracy charges be moved from the District to Roanoke, Va., because “intensely negative” news coverage has biased potential jurors against him.
That is as phony as a canary with fangs.
Above the fruited plain and from sea to shining sea, there’s hardly a soul in America with access to a TV, newspapers, the Internet or a computer who hasn’t heard that a short time ago a jury in Alexandria found Manafort guilty of doing things he ought not to have done.
They may not be able to say whether the trial took place in a federal or local court. They may not be able to list the eight felonies for which Manafort was convicted — or the 10 charges on which the jury deadlocked. But thanks to nationwide media attention, most folks probably know about his prosecution and conviction.
Moving the upcoming trial neither lowers Manafort’s profile nor inoculates him against the likely intense news coverage that will follow him wherever he goes. A search this week for “Paul Manafort” on the website of the Roanoke Times, the primary daily newspaper covering southwestern Virginia, found more than 350 results. His fraud convictions in Alexandria are hardly a secret in the Roanoke environs.
Is something else at work?
Harvard Law School professor and informal Trump adviser Alan Dershowitz had another take on why D.C. juries are to be avoided. He told radio listeners last year that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s decision to use a grand jury based in an overly Democratic jurisdiction in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election “stacked the deck” against President Trump.
What Dershowitz and Manafort’s team of lawyers may be getting at is their fear that an overwhelmingly Democratic city, with a plurality of liberal voters, will be inherently biased against Manafort, who has a long track record of laboring in Republican vineyards on behalf of conservative causes, including carrying water for Trump during the 2016 Republican convention.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, for whom no political pot is too hard to stir, jumped into the very fray a year ago. He tweeted: “President Trump got 68.63% in West Virginia, 4.8% in Washington DC. Guess where Mueller has a grand jury? Guess how biased it will be?”
Hence, move the trial from our nation’s capital down south to Roanoke, where presumably a more Republican and conservative jury pool awaits.
But that is no guarantee of outcome. Think of juror Paula Duncan in the Alexandria trial.
In a post-trial interview, Duncan identified herself as an avid Trump supporter who wanted Manafort to be innocent. “Finding Mr. Manafort guilty was hard for me,” she told Fox News. It was the evidence, she said, that led her and all other jurors, except one, to agree that Manafort was guilty on all 18 federal felony counts of bank and tax fraud. The lone holdout caused the deadlock on 10 counts.
What basis is there to believe that a jury in Washington would be incapable of hearing and judging evidence the same impartial way?
D.C. jurors are not federal-government handmaidens. Verdicts in favor and against the government are rendered in the city every day, and in federal and superior courts.
To be sure, Manafort will be walking into a D.C. federal court with a bit of a cloud over his head. Prosecutors accused Manafort of attempted witness tampering following his grand-jury indictment on illegal lobbying charges, and they asked that his pretrial release on home confinement be revoked. At a hearing, a federal judge agreed. Manafort has been behind prison walls ever since.
Still, his fate is not preordained. The larger questions for Manafort are: Will prosecutors retry him on the 10 counts on which the jury in Alexandria couldn’t agree? And is he willing to risk adding more time to his years in prison by rolling the dice in court for a second time, in a trial in which he faces a larger stack of evidence?
Is there a plea bargain in Manafort’s future, or a presidential pardon?
Those answers are out of a D.C. jury’s hands. But a D.C. jury can surely perform the task of dispassionately deliberating the evidence in any trial.
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