Paul Manafort’s trial took place in a technology black hole. In the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, phones and computers are forbidden — and no cameras are allowed.
Federal trial courts are decades behind their state counterparts when it comes to broadcasting trials. The first trial to come out of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — the most politically significant of the year — unfolded only via sporadic media reports. No streaming, no live-tweeting, no video, no audio.
The public couldn’t hear the judge lob his latest criticism at prosecutors or watch Manafort’s face as the clerk announced Tuesday that the jury had found him guilty of eight felony charges. (The jury hung on the remaining 10 counts.) Beyond the more dramatic moments, no cameras also meant the public also couldn’t observe the rhythms of the three-week trial — the courtroom routines, the demeanor of witnesses, and the general scene inside. Below are observations that made it into this reporter’s notebook.
Six men, six women
US District Judge T.S. Ellis III denied a request to release the names of jurors, citing concerns for their safety in light of threats he said he’d received during the trial. The jury was made up of six men and six women (plus four alternates who were dismissed before deliberations began). CNN reported that that the jury included an accountant — a relevant background, given the tax charges against Manafort — and someone who works for the US Supreme Court.
Some jurors took notes during testimony and some didn’t. They appeared to get along, at least at the beginning — on the second day of trial, the judge announced that he would grant the jury’s request to be allowed to bring in a birthday cake; the courthouse normally doesn’t allow in outside food or drinks.
The court’s pro-analog attitude was on display in Ellis’s courtroom. At the start of each day, the clerk would do a jury roll call. She would read the jurors’ numbers — they were only identified by numbers, no names — from a long wooden board with strips of paper stuck in along the sides representing each juror.
The public and the press can’t bring phones or computers inside the Albert V. Bryan US Courthouse — lawyers can with permission from a judge — but there is a way to communicate with the outside world: There’s a small bank of pay phones on the second floor. The cafeteria down the hall was happy to make change.
Throughout the trial, when the judge wanted to talk to the lawyers out of earshot of jurors and the public, he would call them up to the bench and the clerk would switch on what’s known as a “husher.” Hushers are common in courthouses — they create white noise to mask conversations at the bench. Before turning it on early in Manafort’s trial, Ellis explained to the courtroom that when the device was first installed three decades ago, he was told it would sound like waves breaking on the beach. (It does not.)
The jurors and the public couldn’t hear the bench conferences, but they could see them. The judge would huddle with the lawyers in a corner of the room to the right of where he normally sat. At times, during what were later revealed in transcripts to be tense discussions about what evidence the judge would allow the government to introduce, the judge could be seen pointing and gesticulating, while prosecutors grimaced or shook their heads.
Seen, but not heard
Manafort was always brought into the courtroom before the jury, escorted by guards through a door on the right side of the courtroom from a holding area for detained defendants. He’s been in jail since mid-June. The judge handling his other case in the US District Court for the District of Columbia decided pretrial detention was needed following allegations from Mueller’s office that Manafort attempted to interfere with potential witnesses.
But Ellis barred any mention of Manafort’s incarceration during the trial, and the jurors were instructed not to look at any news coverage. Most of the jury selection took place at the bench with the husher on, so it’s not clear what the jurors revealed about what they knew about the case before the trial started.
When Manafort came into the courtroom, he would often nod or smile at his wife Kathleen Manafort, who sat in the front row on the defense side of the courtroom. He always wore a suit and tie — a mix of black and navy suits, white and light blue shirts. His suits at trial were more subdued than some of the patterned, custom suits and jackets that prosecutors alleged Manafort paid for via wire transfers from overseas bank accounts.
The jury did not hear at all from Manafort — he invoked his constitutional right not to testify, and otherwise didn’t have reason to speak in front of the jurors throughout the trial.
Ellis did not allow reserved seating in his courtroom. Reporters and members of the public would line up hours before the courthouse opened at 8 a.m. to secure a seat inside the courtroom, which held roughly 150 people. The court arranged for an overflow room to accommodate more people, but the quality of the audio piped in was inconsistent, and the cameras in Ellis’s courtroom did not capture the full scene. Trips outside to check a phone, or even down the hall to the restroom, could be fraught — people hoping for a seat would prowl the aisles during breaks, occasionally pushing aside a newspaper or stack of papers left behind to mark a seat as taken.
He who was not named
Manafort wasn’t charged with any conduct directly related to his role as Trump’s former campaign chair, but Trump’s name did come up a few times — in explanations about Manafort’s work history and during testimony about efforts by a bank CEO to secure a job with the campaign and in the administration while Manafort was applying to that bank for millions of dollars in loans.
But while there were a few references to the special counsel’s office, Robert Mueller’s name did not come up. Prosecutors avoided using the term “special counsel,” even asking the judge to replace the phrase with “Department of Justice” in a proposed jury instruction. But Manafort’s lawyers did use it a few times (as opposed to referring to the government as “the government” or “the Justice Department”).
Mueller did not attend the trial — he hasn’t been at court proceedings in any of the cases brought by his office so far — but a senior member of the special counsel office, Andrew Weissmann, sometimes sat in the back of the courtroom.
Passing the time
One of the trial’s most stalwart attendees, aside from the crush of reporters, was Terry Farrar, a 60-year-old Alexandria resident who was often one of the first people outside the courthouse in the morning. Farrar told BuzzFeed News that she lived across the street and decided to attend “just to be educated.” It was the first trial she had sat through, she said, and she plans to do it again — she hopes to bring along her husband, a former US ambassador, once he retires, she said.
Farrar knitted throughout the trial, although near the end, court security confiscated her needles. Farrar explained that she was knitting baby blankets for her church. (She got the needles back later, she said.) Many members of the public stopped coming after closing arguments, but Farrar stayed during jury deliberations. After her knitting needles were taken away, she brought other craft projects to pass the time, including weaving small baskets from rolled-up magazine pages and origami. (She showed this reporter how to make a crane.)