Manafort Jury's Turmoil Suggests Land Mines for His Next Trial

(Bloomberg) -- One juror in the trial of Paul Manafort may have started weighing evidence too soon, prompting a call for a mistrial. Another said Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman could have been convicted on all 18 counts he faced, were it not for a sole holdout.

Neither happened. But behind the scenes, both possibilities were at play, according to court documents and a juror’s statements after Manafort’s eight-count conviction on Aug. 21 in Alexandria, Virginia. The federal court jury battled intense pressure, shouting matches, tears and potentially outcome-changing missteps to reach its verdict, all of it underscoring a courtroom truism: a carefully choreographed trial can turn on the actions of a single juror.

The drama could be replayed soon. A second trial for Manafort is scheduled to begin next month, across the Potomac River in Washington. The backstage turmoil from the first trial highlights some of the challenges U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson may need to navigate in overseeing another politically charged case against a former key aide to the president’s campaign.

The new panel must evaluate evidence prosecutors say supports a seven-count indictment accusing the former political strategist of conspiring to launder money, failing to register as a lobbyist for the pro-Russian government of ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and obstructing justice. The most serious of those counts -- money laundering and obstruction -- carry top sentences of 20 years in prison.

Unbiased Jury

"All three parties have an interest in having an unbiased jury," said former Justice Department lawyer Jon Jacobs, referring to both sides and the judge. Jacobs was part of the team that won an U.S. antitrust suit last year before Jackson that blocked Anthem Inc. from acquiring rival health insurer Cigna Corp.

While the judge in Alexandria, T.S. Ellis III, was criticized for frequently chastising prosecutors in front of the jury, it’s unlikely Jackson would comment "pro or con about the merits of the case in front of the jury,” Jacobs said.

Prospective jurors won’t be excused from serving for having seen reports of the Alexandria case, unless they’ve formed unshakable opinions, he said.

It’s possible the defense may seek to postpone the second trial or have it moved to another location because of the heavy media coverage of the first case in the Washington area, said former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi.

“That verdict was devastating blow to the objectivity of the jury pool," he noted.

Choosing Jurors

In Alexandria, Ellis didn’t inquire too deeply about potential jurors’ political beliefs, instead asking whether they can put aside their politics to fairly and impartially judge the evidence. Jackson is likely to do that too.

And while there’s no uniform way of picking a jury across the federal court system, Jackson -- like Ellis -- will likely start that process with a questionnaire that seeks the basics: name, gender, age, address, marital and employment status, educational attainment and military service. It also asks prospective jurors for their general experience with the justice system and their familiarity and experience with matters relevant to the case at hand.

In Alexandria, Ellis managed to contain a conflict between jurors when one of them told a court security officer that another had been overheard apparently prejudging the case as all-but-won by the prosecution, according to court records. The judge rejected a defense motion for a mistrial then, and again days later after the panel indicated it didn’t want its communiques with the judge read aloud in open court.

Despite the intrigue, the jury of six men and six women managed to agree on eight of 18 counts. They split 11-1 on the other charges, one juror said in television interviews.

Manafort’s not finished in Virginia. Prosecutors have until Aug. 29 to tell Ellis whether they’ll seek to retry him on those charges. Word that 11 jurors were inclined to convict may embolden them to do so.

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