Manafort Judge to Tell Jury to Ignore His Trial Commentary

(Bloomberg) -- Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, taking one last chance to complain about the impact that critical comments made by Paul Manafort’s trial judge may have on their case, won a victory of sorts: U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III will tell the panel to ignore what he said and focus on the evidence.

That concession came after attorneys for both sides persuaded Ellis to swap out two of the instructions he plans to give jurors about how to apply the law to the evidence, and replace it with a single instruction addressing the prosecutors’ concerns.

The agreed-upon change, made Tuesday afternoon after Ellis had sent the jury home for the day, is meant to address his running commentary during the trial including one instance cited -- with some hesitation -- by lead prosecutor Greg Andres.

That instance happened last week as prosecutors’ star witness, former Manafort aide Rick Gates -- who is cooperating with the government -- testified: "Mr. Manafort was very good about keeping track of the money.’’

“Not the money you stole from him,’’ Ellis cracked. “So he didn’t do it that closely.’’

Prosecutor Uzo Asonye told Ellis on Tuesday that he didn’t think opining on witness testimony was "where the court wants to be." The judge, after some deliberation, agreed and revised his instruction on that point.

Jurors will return Wednesday to hear about two hours of closing argument from each side and then those critical instructions on how to apply the law to the evidence during their deliberations. That process will take about 90 minutes, the judge said.

The testimony came to an abrupt end when defense attorney Kevin Downing told Ellis that the defense rested and would not call Manafort or anyone else to the stand.

Lawyers for the government wrapped their case Monday after calling their final witness -- a senior special agent at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

The 12 jurors and their four backups heard from 27 witnesses and saw hundreds of pages of documentary evidence during the trial. Their task now is to reconcile what they heard with the law governing each of the three groups of charges leveled against Manafort: filing false tax returns, bank fraud and failure to file foreign bank account disclosure forms with the U.S. government.

Manafort is facing eight to 10 years of imprisonment on the tax charges alone and could be looking at even more time if the jury convicts him on the nine counts of bank fraud and bank fraud conspiracy, which each carry a maximum sentence of 30 years.

Before the lawyers for the defense rested, they asked Ellis to dismiss the indictment. That request was denied.

Jurors will have to rely upon the evidence admitted, their recollections and upon notes they took in composition books provided to them by the court at the trial’s outset. Ellis has said he’ll not permit them to hear read-backs of transcripted testimony.

The case is U.S. v. Manafort, 18-cr-83, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Alexandria).

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