Manafort judge weighed declaring mistrial over jury issues

A juror’s comment about Paul Manafort’s lack of a defense led to four days of secretive discussions in the middle of the trial and the judge weighing whether he should call a mistrial, according to newly unsealed court transcripts.

The discussions began on August 10 when the trial was delayed for five hours, and unfurled over the following three days in court.

According to the transcripts released Wednesday, the heavy media presence weighed on Judge T.S. Ellis and the lawyers. Ellis even considered how not to create “more grist for the wild media mill,” as the judge re-interviewed every juror about their impartiality and heard arguments from the lawyers in a closed courtroom.

The delay of the prosecution’s case as the judge dealt with the jury accusation led to much speculation among the public as to what the private discussions encompassed.

The transcripts, sealed until after a verdict, were released by the court on Wednesday. Manafort was convicted on eight charges of financial crimes Tuesday.

When Ellis started inquiring with jurors about what was happening on August 10, one juror told him the other members of the jury had been making remarks about politics and the case, and how one juror commented that “the defense was weak.”

Jurors are not allowed to discuss the case among themselves until after both prosecutors and defense close their presentations and deliberations officially begin.

Ultimately, the situation didn’t result in the dismissal of any jurors, and Ellis declined to declare a mistrial. But it did create quite the hitch in the proceedings.

Juror spoke about Manafort’s defense strategy

Here’s what happened, as described in the newly unsealed court transcripts:

One juror, within earshot of another juror, commented that Manafort “has not presented any evidence of his innocence,” Ellis first told the attorneys involved. The second juror reported the incident to the court, saying the juror who made the comments was “unimpressed” with Manafort’s case.

That second juror then asked if the judge could tell the jurors they shouldn’t make comments about the case before deliberations. (Ellis reminded the jurors of this during time at the beginning and end of every day of trial.)

Manafort’s defense team grasped onto the hubbub almost immediately, asking Ellis to declare a mistrial and to toss a juror for being untruthful. If the latter had happened, the juror may have been replaced with an alternate.

Ultimately, Ellis heard arguments from the lawyers over four days, from August 10 until August 15, when both sides delivered their closing arguments. The jury began deliberations on August 16 and reached a verdict Tuesday.

“This clearly is crossing the line if it, in fact, happened,” Manafort’s defense attorney Richard Westling told the judge the first time the lawyers discussed the juror issue. “It suggests someone who has left beside — behind the presumption of innocence the defendant is entitled to until the evidence is all in.”

During the first few hours of sealed conversation in the packed courtroom, Ellis, the lawyers and the courtroom staff spent several minutes discussing how best not to create “pandemonium” among the watching spectators. By that time, something clearly was up in courtroom, because of the unexpected delay and the long, hushed conversations the lawyers were having.

For his first round of juror interviews to investigate the problem, Ellis and a law clerk ended up exiting through the door on the opposite side of the courtroom from the judge’s chambers — leading some in the watching crowd to suspect he would speak with jurors, who waited near that door.

The second juror, a woman who had overhead the comments, told the judge at this interview that she feared the other juror “had essentially made up her mind regarding the case based on the information presented to her thus far,” according to the transcript. “And I reminded her that we have not heard from everyone in this case. That we need, of course, [to] keep an open mind. It is our responsibility as a jury to hear everything and then reach our own conclusion.”

The juror also told the judge she thought other jurors were talking too much about the case.

When Ellis confronted the juror who made the comment about the defense that may have crossed the line, she replied: “What I meant was that it would be really hard to have to defend against that.” By this point in the trial, the prosecutors had called 23 witnesses to testify and used thousands of pages of documents as evidence.

The jurors and trial attorneys moved through back halls to meet Ellis in his conference room. He interviewed the jurors one by one the following week in the courtroom. Each assured the judge they remained unbiased and could deliberate the case with an open mind.

That round of interviews came hours before Manafort’s team rested his case without presenting any witnesses.

After the trial, Manafort attorney Kevin Downing said Ellis held a “fair trial.”

“Mr. Manafort is disappointed of not getting acquittals all the way through or a complete hung jury on all counts,” Downing told reporters. “However, he would like to thank Judge Ellis for granting him a fair trial, thank the jury for their very long and hard-fought deliberations.”