August 14, 2018 / 11:54 AM / 6 months ago

Ex-Trump aide Manafort's defense rests, case headed to jury

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - Attorneys for Paul Manafort rested their case on Tuesday without calling any witnesses, including the former Trump campaign chairman himself, who told the judge he did not want to testify in his own defense against bank and tax fraud charges.

The defense attorneys’ decision means that the closely watched case is expected to go to the 12-person jury late Wednesday, after prosecutors and Manafort’s lawyers make their closing arguments and instructions are issued to the jury.

Manafort’s trial is the first courtroom test for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who indicted him as part of an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

A Manafort conviction would undermine efforts by President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers to paint Mueller’s inquiry as a political witch hunt, while an acquittal would be a setback for the special counsel.

Manafort lawyer Kevin Downing said Manafort’s legal team chose not to mount a defense because U.S. prosecutors had not met the legal bar needed to prove their case.

“We’ve rested because Mr. Manafort and his legal team do not think the government has met its proof,” Downing told Reuters.

Manafort, who has watched silently as the case against him was argued in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, was asked by Judge T.S. Ellis whether he wanted to testify.

“No, sir,” he replied.

Asked whether he was satisfied with the advice he’d received from his attorneys, Manafort said, “I am, your honor.”

That exchange took place without jurors in the courtroom. On Tuesday afternoon, the jurors were called to hear of the defense team’s decision, and then dismissed for the day.

Manafort made millions of dollars working for pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians before he took an unpaid position with Trump’s campaign that lasted five months. The charges against him involve activities that predate his tenure with the Trump campaign.

Manafort has been charged with tax and bank fraud as well as failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. If found guilty on all charges, he could face eight to 10 years in prison, according to sentencing expert Justin Paperny.

U.S. prosecutors on Monday rested their case against Manafort after 10 days of testimony.

Manafort’s lawyers then sought to have all the charges dismissed, in part arguing the prosecution had not proven he willingly committed crimes. The motion was a standard defense request viewed by legal experts as unlikely to succeed.

“They are all jury issues,” Ellis said on Tuesday, explaining that he believed it should be up to the jury to decide.

With the jurors sent home, Ellis met with the lawyers in open court to decide on jury instructions.

The prosecution pressed Ellis to alter instructions about comments the judge had made to emphasize that they should not be considered by the jury.

Ellis eventually made changes that appeased the prosecution, but the back and forth highlighted the tense relationship between the government and Ellis throughout the trial.

Greg Andres, a prosecutor on Mueller’s team, pointed to an instance during the testimony of Rick Gates where Ellis questioned whether Gates was being sincere, a comment that was criticized by legal experts as inappropriate.

FILE PHOTO: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is shown in this booking photo in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., July 12, 2018. Alexandria Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS/ File Photo

When confronted by Andres about the comment, Ellis responded in a sarcastic tone, “That really hurt the government, didn’t it?”

Gates, Manafort’s right-hand man, was the government’s star witness, while Manafort’s lawyers have put attacking his credibility at the heart of their defense.

The court was closed to the public for most of the morning on Tuesday to discuss a sealed motion. While the contents of the motion are unknown, legal experts have speculated it relates to jury misconduct, but noted that the trial resumed.

Reporting by Nathan Layne, Karen Freifeld and Amanda Becker in Alexandria, Virginia; Writing by Warren Strobel and Susan Heavey; Editing by Alistair Bell and James Dalgleish

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