Manafort Trial Transcripts Could Reveal Secrets About Jury Talks

(Bloomberg) -- The jury in the Paul Manafort case enters its fourth day of deliberations Tuesday with questions about the panel’s conduct that will be answered only when U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III unseals transcripts after the trial.

Ellis has held several private conferences about the jury and the lawyers in the bank and tax fraud case against President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman. Insights into the dynamics of the panel may lie in the transcripts of the meetings, regardless of whether the jury comes to a unanimous agreement on the 18 counts against Manafort or ends in a mistrial.

Manafort Trial Transcripts Could Reveal Secrets About Jury Talks

Ellis said last week that he’ll withhold a discussion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign, and a list of the names of jurors because he fears for their safety in the high-profile case. Otherwise, he’ll lift the curtain on the rest.

The judge, whose caustic comments and rapid pace have punctuated the trial, indicated that several of the conferences involved the jury in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. His instructions to the jury -- including an extra stern warning on Aug. 10 against discussing the case among themselves or with anyone else that followed two hours of private meetings -- raise questions about the panel’s conduct.

But Ellis hasn’t dismissed jurors in one of the most highly publicized U.S. trials in recent years. The transcripts should provide answers.

‘Scrutiny and Criticism’

“They won’t be public until the end of the trial because they have to do with the court’s administration of the jury in this case,’’ Ellis said on Aug. 17 to a lawyer for a media coalition seeking access to the transcripts. “When the trial is over, it will be available for public scrutiny and criticism.’’

On Aug. 10, the proceedings were to begin at 9:30 a.m., but Ellis instead held a closed-door conference. At 11:10 a.m., the judge brought the 12 jurors and four alternates into open court.

He repeated his oft-stated admonishment about discussing the case, and then went further than he typically did at the start and the end of the day when telling jurors to avoid discussing or researching the case outside the courtroom. Manafort was presumed innocent and wasn’t required to present evidence, while prosecutors had the burden of proving Manafort guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.

“Keep an open mind until all the evidence is in and you’ve heard my instructions,’’ Ellis said. “When you retire to the jury room, that’s when, of course, you are required to make up your mind.”

The jury took its lunch recess at 11:12 a.m. that day, and more closed-door discussions were held. At one point the judge and a court reporter emerged from the side of the courtroom where jurors met. Testimony resumed in the early afternoon. Jurors heard seven more witnesses over two trial days before lawyers gave closing arguments on Aug. 15. Deliberations began the next day without the alternate jurors.

On Monday, dozens of reporters were camped in the courtroom waiting for a verdict. Outside the building, dozens of cameras and television reporters waited for the trial’s conclusion.

The judge has acknowledged the case had drawn far more attention than he expected.

“I had no idea that this case would excite these emotions, I will tell you frankly,’’ Ellis said Aug. 17. “It’s obvious to the people who were here at the beginning that I did not understand how this case would be perceived by members of the public and the press.’’

Ellis, who subjected Mueller’s prosecutors to harsh criticism during the trial, said he’s received threats and is under the protection of U.S. marshals. That prompted him to keep the names of jurors under seal for their “peace and safety.’’

At an earlier hearing that day, Ellis seemed taken aback by the attention he’s received. He vowed to keep the proceedings open, as he’s done during 31 years as a judge.

“I don’t do things to keep them under seal and to keep them from being scrutinized,’’ Ellis said. “I’m no stranger to criticism. This case has brought it to a new level.’’

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