Defense counsel in Manafort trial sought mistrial over juror issue

PHOTO: Paul Manafort walks from Federal District Court in Washington, Oct. 30, 2017.PlayAlex Brandon/AP, FILE
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Newly unsealed transcripts of discussions between the judge and the legal teams in the financial crimes trial of Paul Manafort revealed the defense team requested a mistrial after it was alleged that a handful of jurors may have decided the case prematurely or had been speaking about the case inappropriately with each other.

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On the ninth day of the trial, a female juror warned the court that a fellow juror, another female, appeared to have "made up her mind" regarding Manafort’s guilt, and said that several others made inappropriate comments - violating the judge's rules. Those comments occurred four or five days into the trial, according to the unnamed juror - before the government had even rested its case.

In a drama that played out entirely behind the scenes out of public view, the accusing juror was spirited into one of the judge’s conference rooms to be questioned by Ellis in front of both legal teams.

The judge asked the female juror to recount her concerns.

"Okay. Basically my understanding was that she had essentially made up her mind regarding the case based on the information presented to her thus far," the juror told Judge Ellis. "What she said was, "They didn't -- they couldn't have much to present.' 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."

All of this came on a Friday, when the trial of the former Trump campaign chairman was to convene late. The judge convened the trial and admonished the jurors in much stronger words than usual - reminding them that the defendant was presumed innocent until all of the evidence was in, and no discussion of the trial was to occur until its conclusion. He then recessed for most of the afternoon, and legal teams could be seen going and coming from the vicinity of the courtroom.

The juror also revealed that more than one juror had violated the judge’s rules about not speaking about the trial.

Judge Ellis asked of the accuser, "Have you heard this juror or any other juror make similar statements?"

"Yes, sir," the juror responded, adding - after she was brought in a second time for further questioning - that she thought "approximately" three other jurors had made inappropriate comments, saying, "They're talking. I mean they're just making general remarks of, I mean -- I don't feel that anybody is taking sides per se. Someone mentioned, you know, well, and this was a couple of days ago of how they thought that the -- the defense was weak. And, of course, I said, 'Well, you really can't say things like that. I don't think that's appropriate.'"

The judge then questioned the accused female juror who denied breaking the rules.

"Did you make a remark or in words like this or close to it that 'The defendant has not presented any evidence and I am unimpressed?'" Judge Ellis asked the woman.

The juror responded, according to the newly-released transcript, "I don't recall, but I mean -- what I meant was that it would be really hard to have to defend against that."

Unable to determine which other jurors had made comments about Manafort, defense attorney Richard Westling said, "I think based on the record that we have before us, Your Honor, we would move for a mistrial."

The judge said he would allow the defense to file a brief on the matter before denying their request.

"I'm not going to declare a mistrial at this time. You may move for one, but you're going to have to do it with muscle," Judge Ellis said, adding, "I have an independent responsibility to declare a mistrial if I see facts and circumstances that arise that warrant that. I don't see those yet. Or maybe at all."

In the end, after much angst behind closed doors, the trial continued and Manafort was ultimately found guilty on eight of the 18 felony fraud counts, with mistrials on 10 of those counts.

Saying his client was "evaluating all of his options," defense counsel Kevin Downing conceded, "Mr. Manafort got a fair trial."

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