All political eyes and ears are on the start of Paul Manafort’s criminal trial for tax evasion, money laundering and an assortment of other money crimes. Paul Manafort is the former chairman for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Jury selection is underway today.
If this were a card game, special prosecutor Robert Mueller has held his playing cards closely to his chest to prevent tipping his hand. Until the start of the trial, we do not know what the evidence will show. The indictment spells out what the prosecution intends to prove. Once witnesses take the stand and documents are presented, we will know the hand that Manafort and Mueller have been dealt.
As for timing, the actual start of the trial with opening statements may not take place on the first day. There is never a magical formula to predict the time that it will take to pick a jury. Having tried many complex trials lasting weeks and months, it is never an easy guess. And this case is further complicated by the fact that everything is political in nature. While Manafort’s trial does not focus on Russia and any Russian collusion, it is there streaming in the background. And prospective jurors may already have taken sides in this political climate.
Jurors will be asked a ton of questions to ensure that they can be fair and impartial. However, most jurors will likely already know something about the case. Some may have already come to conclusions—without ever hearing any evidence. Those prospective jurors who cannot set aside their preconceived notions and judge the case solely on the evidence presented will likely be excluded. However, in today’s political climate, it is conceivable that a juror who is strongly for or against one side, might end up sitting on the jury.
The stakes are high for Robert Mueller and his special prosecution team. If the prosecution wins, then it will send a clear signal that the other upcoming cases are on the right path. If he loses or a jury is unable to render a verdict, a roar of “no collusion”, “witch- hunt “will be heard around the world by Donald Trump and his followers. If Mueller does not succeed with a guilty verdict on all or most counts, the GOP and Trump will likely call for an end to the special prosecutor. Although Manafort’s charges and trial are not about Russia, it’s really all about Russia.
Manafort is charged in an indictment with various money crimes consisting of lying to banks to get money, avoiding paying taxes, money laundering and hiding money in offshore accounts to avoid declaring it as income. These cases are tried mostly with documents to prove the elements of the crime. Under most ordinary circumstances, these cases are usually easy to win. Witnesses will testify such as Rick Gates who worked for Manafort. Gates has cut a deal with prosecutors. A witness who has skin in the game and has cut a deal with prosecutors is sometimes viewed with doubt or suspicion. If the documentary evidence is overwhelming, Gates and the witnesses are only icing on the cake.
Most financial crime cases are easy to win for the prosecutor. Yet, no case is ever a slam dunk for prosecutors. Despite having a strong case, a case can still be lost. One never knows what a jury of 12 persons will do when they go to deliberate behind closed doors. All 12 jurors must agree to render a verdict. If less than twelve agree on charges, a mistrial will be declared.
The biggest problem for Mueller is predicting how twelve persons will decide this case. Anything less than guilty verdicts on all 12 counts will be seen as a partial loss. There is no slam dunk trial in law. Any case can be won or lost. Manafort’s case is seen as a must win for Robert Mueller.
UPDATE: In the late afternoon, a jury of six men and six women were seated to hear the trial. Opening statements and prosecution witness testimony began. The prosecution intends to paint Manafort as someone who believes he is above the law. The defense intends to play “pin the tail on the donkey” and blame everything on Rick Gates who received a plea deal. But Rick Gates was not the one who received $60 million in unreported income. A three judge panel denied Manafort’s request for release from jail pending trial. Manafort must remain in jail pending his second trial in September.
More updates and analysis to follow as the trial progresses.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a former Baltimore prosecutor and criminal defense trial attorney. She is often seen in various media outlets as a legal analyst.