Newly unsealed transcripts of sidebar discussions in the Paul Manafort trial show the judge in the case wrestled for days with a juror’s assertion that other members of the panel had discussed the case before deliberations began.
The transcripts show Manafort’s defense team asked for a mistrial on multiple occasions, but those requests were denied by the judge.
Manafort, 69, was convicted Tuesday of eight of the 18 charges filed against him — the first trial to emerge out of the investigations of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, and whether any Trump associates conspired with Russia in those efforts.
The issue emerged two weeks ago, toward the end of the prosecution case, when a female juror expressed concerns that a handful of others on the panel were talking about the case before deliberations — which is prohibited by court rules.
Judge T.S. Ellis III called the unidentified juror in for a private discussion, in which she said another juror had recently said to her that “the defense was weak,” or words to that effect. That same juror had also said that about three jurors total had made comments that concerned her, because jury rules prohibit discussing the issues in a case until the jurors have heard all the evidence and begin deliberating.
At the time, it was clear that some issue had arisen that likely involved the jury, but it was unclear what specifically had become a concern.
The dispute, for a time, showed the potential for causing a serious disruption. Manafort’s defense moved for a mistrial, and attorney Kevin Downing suggested that the jury, contrary to the judge’s instructions, was “having discussions about the case, and people were commenting on their thoughts about the strength or weaknesses of the defense.”
“We would obviously not agree that that’s a small thing when a juror, in the middle of trial or over a four- or five-day period, we have jurors making comments on the weakness of the defense,” Downing argued.
Prosecutors said that Downing was overstating the comments of one juror, and idle political chatter unconnected to the case was not necessarily inappropriate.
“There was no question or no evidence whatsoever that people were deliberating,” prosecutor Greg Andres told Ellis during the now-unsealed proceedings. “There were stray comments.”
On Aug. 14, with the issue still unfolding, the juror who was the subject of the initial complaint wrote a note to the judge, apparently disclosing some kind of medical condition. The exact contents of the note remain secret, but Ellis said the juror “clearly is under some stress” and remarked about his own mother’s medical condition.
That same day, the judge questioned all 16 jurors — including the four alternates — about whether they had followed his instructions, and about whether they had heard their fellow jurors discussing the case. The first initially said “not really” when asked if they “heard any other jurors discuss the weight or effect of the evidence,” but later gave a definitive no. Fourteen others did the same, confirming they had followed the judge’s instructions.
The 15th, apparently the woman who complained initially, said, “I think I’ve said everything I need to say.”
Ellis ultimately rejected the defense’s motion to declare a mistrial during the trial, saying it was “not warranted.” He also rebuffed a bid to remove the juror with a health issue from the panel.
The transcripts also reveal that the defense asked for a mistrial again on Monday when, during deliberations, jurors requested that if they had legal questions for the judge while they deliberated, that those questions should not to be read out loud in court or answered in open court.
It is standard procedure for courts to enter jury questions into the public record, and the answers provided are also typically a part of the public record.
“I’ve done this for 21 years, and I’ve never had this happen,” Downing told the judge in asking for a mistrial.
Judge Ellis denied the motion but did so with an unusual rhetorical flourish, declaring that the jurors “are intimidated.”
He continued: “Were you ever in a trial with this many people and this much TV outside?”
Downing answered, “I have, I actually have.”
Ellis replied, “No, you haven’t. This is unique in American history. Yes.”
Later in the day, the judge seemed to realize his remarks could be problematic, and he contradicted his statements.
He said his claim about the jurors being intimidated “is completely without any factual basis. I mean it’s sort of a human thing, but it has nothing whatever to do with the facts.”
Of his assertion that American history had never seen such a trial, the judge said, “That’s kind of a ridiculous thing for me to say.”