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Manafort trial: Is analyzing jury questions just guesswork?

| Aug 29, 2018 | Criminal Defense |

Last Wednesday, a jury found former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty of eight federal charges involving bank fraud and tax evasion. Yet jurors were unable to reach a consensus on the remaining ten counts, leading the judge to declare a mistrial on those charges.

Manafort’s trial – the first resulting from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation – played out in dramatic fashion, with deliberations dragging on for days. And the jury kept both sides guessing.

Clarification on “reasonable doubt”

After the first day of deliberating, jurors sent the judge a note asking for, among other things, a clarified definition of “reasonable doubt.” At the time, Manafort’s defense attorney viewed the lengthy deliberations – and particularly the question about reasonable doubt – as “a good sign.” Typically, the longer jurors deliberate, the less likely they are to reach an agreement. And the question about doubt perhaps indicated that they had doubts, but weren’t sure how much weight to give them.

Still, the verdict in this case was a crushing blow for Manafort, who now faces up to 80 years in prison.

A tense and emotional process

The lengthy deliberations likely reflected the complex and high-stakes nature of the charges. In their note to the judge, the jury also asked for a list linking each exhibit to the corresponding charges. (The judge, as is typical, directed them to rely on their collective memories of the evidence at trial.) This suggests they may have found it difficult to wade through the voluminous paper trails.

According to one juror, who spoke to the media after the verdict, deliberations were tense and emotional – even to the point of tears. A self-professed Trump supporter, the juror admitted she didn’t want to find Manafort guilty but couldn’t deny the “overwhelming” evidence. She attributed the delay to a single holdout juror who couldn’t be convinced of the remaining ten charges. Were it not for that juror, she claimed, Manafort would have been found guilty on all counts.

A window into deliberations

The Manafort case illustrates how tricky it can be to handle questions from a deliberating jury. As the impartial arbiter, the judge must take care not to influence the jury by way of response. Typically, both sides have an opportunity to weigh in before the judge provides a written reply or, in some cases, brings the jury back into the courtroom to deliver the response.

Questions from a jury also provide a window – albeit a hazy one – into their mindset during deliberations. Few other clues are available during this secretive process. As was the case here, the media often latches onto the questions, analyzing them from all angles, turning and inspecting them in the dim light of pre-verdict speculation.

But, as was also the case here, it’s impossible to get a surefire read on any jury before they march back into the courtroom to deliver their decision. The suspense is part of what makes trials so intriguing – at least for those with no personal stake in the outcome. For defendants, however, it can be nearly unbearable.

More to come…

A verdict is far from the end of the road, of course. Appeals and postconviction proceedings can take months or years. And for Manafort, another trial on related counts will bring another round of suspenseful deliberations.

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