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8 experts on why the Paul Manafort jury doesn’t have a verdict yet — and what it might mean

“You could speculate that there’s some dynamic involving a holdout, but the better fit with the facts is that they’re just moving through methodically.”

Paul Manafort arriving at a Washington, DC court hearing in June 2018.
Paul Manafort arriving at a Washington, DC, court hearing in June 2018.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

If it feels like the jury in Paul Manafort’s trial is taking forever to reach a verdict, actually, it’s not. This is how long you’d expect them to take, despite the defense’s claims that extended deliberations and the jury’s questions are a good sign.

Jurors headed home on Friday (they weren’t sequestered) without reaching a verdict after two days of deliberations, frustrating onlookers eager for answers in the highest-profile development yet in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Manafort, the former campaign chair for President Donald Trump, has been charged on 18 total counts. They include bank fraud, bank fraud conspiracy, false income tax returns, and failure to report foreign bank or financial assets, and has pleaded not guilty to all of them. Trump on Friday told reporters he believes the “whole Manafort trial is very sad.”

Thus far, it’s been hard to glean what, if anything, is happening in jury deliberations. Even the names of the people deliberating are unknown: US District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III, who is overseeing the trial, on Friday expressed surprise that the case would “incite this emotion” and said he has received “threats” related to the case, expressing concern that something similar might happen to the jury if its members’ names are revealed.

Here’s what we do know: The jury asked Ellis four questions on their first day of discussions, and the judge answered two.

So as we wait, I asked eight lawyers what it might mean that the Manafort jurors are taking so long. Their answer, by and large, was that they aren’t.

“Probably means nothing,” Shira Scheindlin, a former United States district judge in the Southern District of New York, told me. “Most juries are very meticulous. Bank fraud and tax fraud are complex statutes and involve unfamiliar concepts. They are not in the everyday experience of jurors.”

Jens David Ohlin, vice dean and law professor at Cornell Law School, said the jury continuing to deliberate likely means they’re not super close to a verdict — but he pointed out that there are a lot of charges against Manafort for him to just walk away. “Manafort was charged with multiple counts of multiple charges, thus increasing the mathematical likelihood of a conviction on at least some counts,” he said.

And even if the jury deadlocks, that doesn’t mean that Manafort will get off entirely. Rob Long, a former federal prosecutor, pointed out that certainly wasn’t the case for Bill Cosby, who was found guilty of sexual assault after his first trial ended in a mistrial. Manafort is on trial for other charges later this year, too.

In other words, don’t read too much into the jury taking its time on deliberations just yet. The full responses from Scheindlin, Ohlin, Long, and five other attorneys, edited for length and clarity, are below.

Michael Bromwich, former Justice Department inspector general

These deliberations have not been lengthy by any measure. No one should have expected a quick verdict.

The defense’s claim that the length of the deliberations is a good sign for them is pure spin; indeed, quick verdicts in complex cases are frequently for the defendant.

Jurors feel a high degree of responsibility in any case, and a heightened sense of responsibility in a high-profile case. The Oliver North case (1989) took a jury 12 days to deliberate in a case with 12 counts. The Scooter Libby case (2007) took 10 days of deliberations in a case with five counts. This case has 18 counts, supported largely by scores of documents. The judge prevented the prosecutors from showing some of the evidence to the jury during the trial, which means they are looking at some of it for the first time. They must carefully match the evidence with the counts before they can reach a judgment on any count. That’s what they are doing, and it is not at all surprising that this process will take some time.

Harry Litman, former US attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania and former deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department

The most likely thing it means is that they’re going through the charges, which are paper-driven and require confirmation methodically. We know that’s happening, based on their questioning, and it’s the kind of the case that doing that would take three, four, five days anyway.

You could speculate that there’s some dynamic involving a holdout, but the better fit with the facts is that they’re just moving through methodically and this is how long it would take.

Then there would be two kinds of holdouts: One would be a person or persons who are genuinely unpersuaded about one count or another, and then they’d talk it through, and they would take more time. Then there’s the possibility that people are now thinking about: that there’s a classic holdout, somebody who, for non-merits-driven reasons, doesn’t want to convict, and that could emerge. But now there’s no particularly good proof of that. I think we just have a conscientious jury.

I think the decision not to sequester does seem more questionable in this last week, especially because the president of the United States is tweeting things about the trial and obviously advocating the cause of the defendant, which is mighty funky, and it’s certainly plausible that it could reach them.

Judge Ellis expressed a little bit of a surprise at the attention the trial was getting, and it seems like he made his decision thinking it would be a little less the subject of focus than it has been. It was a judgment call on his part, and it’s too late to change, but it’ll be interesting to see, for example, whether the jury in the next trial is sequestered.

Shira Scheindlin, former United States district judge in the Southern District of New York

Probably means nothing.

Most juries are very meticulous. Bank fraud and tax fraud are complex statutes and involve unfamiliar concepts. They are not in the everyday experience of jurors. On top of that is the applicability of these statutes to foreign bank accounts. The jurors’ questions merely show they are being careful and thorough.

Also, I don’t consider two days long for a three-week trial involving complicated financial issues. There has been no hint through notes of dissension among jurors or a possible impasse. I suggest patience is the best response.

Laura Appleman, law professor at Willamette University

First, I would note that two days of deliberations isn’t really that long. I think that the American public has an unrealistic expectation, from all the depictions of criminal justice we get in the media, particularly television and movies, that every criminal adjudication, no matter how complex, can be decided in a short period of time. With something like the Manafort trial, which involves 18 counts related to tax fraud, bank fraud, money laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent, and obstruction of justice, it is likely taking the jury some time just to sort through the counts alone — 18 charges are a lot to bring to trial, and the jury must decide guilt or innocence on all 18.

In addition, the charges against Manafort are extremely complex; fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice all are complicated issues, even for experts. The jury must consider paper trails, international financial transactions, and reams of documents — this is not an open-and-shut case. Moreover, the jury pool is not comprised of experts in international finance, so it makes sense that the deliberations are a slow, painstaking process.

Finally, given that the jurors asked the judge to define “reasonable doubt” on Thursday, August 16, it is likely that they are deliberating — as all juries should — on whether the prosecutors have met their burden of proof. The reasonable doubt standard is notoriously vague, particularly for non-lawyers, and in a high-profile case like this, the jurors are particularly motivated to get it right.

Rob Long, partner at Bell Nunnally and former federal prosecutor at the Justice Department

Relatively speaking, the jury has not been deliberating that long, especially considering that this is a complicated white-collar crime case. I think the jury understands that this is a significant matter. Jurors are doing their civic duty, taking the matter seriously, and carefully considering the evidence, including piles of documents and whether to believe the testimony of Rick Gates.

We can see just how carefully based on the questions they asked the judge on Thursday, August 16. Included in the questions was a question about the definition of “reasonable doubt.” Defense counsel have suggested that this is a good sign for Paul Manafort. In June 2017, a jury in the criminal trial of Bill Cosby (totally different type of criminal charges) asked the judge to clarify the definition of “reasonable doubt.” Ultimately, the jury in the June 2017 Cosby trial deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.

So the question about “reasonable doubt” could bode well for Manafort. It is worth noting, however, that after the June 2017 Cosby mistrial, he was subsequently convicted about a year later when the case was retried. The Manafort prosecution team may have a second bite at the apple — he is scheduled to go on trial on separate criminal charges in September. Prosecutors may also have a third bite at the apple if the Manafort jury in this case deadlocks and he is retried.

The odds are on the prosecutors’ side.

Patrick Cotter, former federal prosecutor and white-collar defense attorney at Greensfelder

First, it is not taking a long time. The case was large, over a dozen separate charges, hundreds of exhibits, about two hours of legal instructions, and it took about three weeks to present the case. Three days is not a long deliberation in such a case.

I do not, therefore, think anything is going on other than normal deliberations, though perhaps the jury, not being completely oblivious to the attention being shown the case, is proceeding even more carefully than they might in a normal case where no one other than the parties pays attention. They realize that their decision will be publicly scrutinized, so they want to get it right.

The other possibility that might happen/be happening (though, again, I see no reason to presume this) is that one or more jurors is confused. But that too is normal. The financial fraud law is complicated and the facts in this case are not the sort of thing many/most people encounter in their everyday life.

Once they got by Friday (when many juries try to finish to avoid disrupting yet another week of their lives), I figured they would go at least two more days, and maybe a few more. That would not be odd since their week is already, in that sense, committed.

In sum, I see a fairly normal and unexceptionable deliberation so far. I expect a verdict this coming week of guilty on most if not all counts.

If they are still at it a week from this Monday, I will revise my opinion. Then they have an outlier who is probably refusing to vote just on the evidence and the law and they may then become “hung.”

Seth Abramson, lawyer and professor at New Hampshire University Manchester

Because this is a “paper case” with a number of charges, complicated financial records, and a lay jury not selected for its understanding of international financial transactions, we would expect a medium-length to long deliberation process — at least a couple days — simply for the jurors to work through all the evidence and discuss each charge separately.

Quick verdicts are not generally associated with lengthy, document-heavy white-collar prosecutions. And if any or all of the jurors have a sense of the public interest in this case, they are likely to be even more careful and deliberative in their review of the evidence than usual.

In some cases, juries reach quick decisions on nearly all the charges but take a long time to decide what to do with a final charge or two that they think may not have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. We should not take anything about the current length of the deliberations to suggest that Manafort will or will not be convicted on all or most of the charges he faces.

The question from the jury about the definition of reasonable doubt is also not particularly unusual. Jurors often discuss in broad terms the question of what doubt should be considered reasonable, and as they do so, they may come to realize they have different understandings of the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In those situations, they may ask for the judge’s assistance to resolve any disagreement between individual jurors on how to exercise their duties and understand the standard of proof they’ve been asked to work with.

Jens David Ohlin, vice dean and law professor at Cornell Law School

The questions from the jury indicate that they are being diligent in their deliberations —thinking seriously about the evidence, about the elements of the offenses and the standard of proof. I’m not surprised that the judge was unwilling to give them more direction on the concept of “reasonable doubt,” since any explanation runs the risk of changing, rather than elaborating, the reasonable doubt standard.

I suspect that the jury is not close to a resolution; otherwise, they would have wrapped up their deliberations before the weekend. In one sense, this is bad news for the prosecution because they would have preferred a quick conviction — agreement between all of the jurors that the prosecution presented an overwhelming case. But the lack of a quick verdict doesn’t signal which way they’ll ultimately go.

However, it is important to remember one thing: Manafort was charged with multiple counts of multiple charges, thus increasing the mathematical likelihood of a conviction on at least some counts.

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