Fed-up judge slaps down Donald Trump
A FEDERAL judge in the United States has slapped down President Donald Trump, accusing him of harassing a juror in the trial of his longtime friend Roger Stone.
Late last year, a jury unanimously convicted Stone on seven charges, which included lying to Congress, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
And last week, Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced him to three years and four months in prison. That punishment was substantially lighter than one originally recommended by the prosecution.
But Stone has requested a new trial, alleging one of the jurors misled the court during the jury selection process. The first hearing to consider his request was held today.
Before we get to the content of that hearing, you need a bit of context.
Mr Trump has been complaining about Stone being treated "unfairly" for months, provoking accusations of political interference in the case.
That argument blew up in the sentencing phase. Prosecutors initially asked for a nine-year jail sentence, but were overruled by Mr Trump's Department of Justice, which then asked Judge Jackson for something more lenient.
All four members of the prosecution team withdrew from the trial in protest.
Since then, the President has become particularly fixated on the jury's forewoman, who identified herself publicly in the wake of the sentencing drama.
Tomeka Hart, who works as a lawyer herself, broke her silence to speak out in support of the four original prosecutors.
"I can't keep quiet any longer," Ms Hart wrote on Facebook. "I have kept my silence for months. Initially, it was for my safety. Then I decided to remain silent out of fear of politicising the matter.
"I want to stand up for Aaron Zelinsky, Adam Jed, Michael Marando and Jonathan Kravis, the prosecutors on the Roger Stone trial.
"It pains me to see the Department of Justice now interfere with the hard work of the prosecutors. They acted with the utmost intelligence, integrity and respect for our system of justice. For that, I wanted to speak up for them."
Ms Hart tried to run for Congress in 2012, unsuccessfully challenging incumbent Congressman Steve Cohen in a Democratic primary. And last year she campaigned on behalf of Tami Sawyer, a progressive who was running, also unsuccessfully, to become mayor of Memphis.
She has also previously posted comments critical of Mr Trump on social media.
When Ms Hart's background emerged, Mr Trump pounced on it, accusing her of being a "biased" and "tainted" juror.
"That juror is so biased and so tainted, that shouldn't happen in our criminal justice system," the President told reporters over the weekend.
"You have a juror that is obviously tainted. She was an activist against Trump. She said bad things about Trump and bad things about Stone.
"She somehow weaseled her way onto the jury, and if that's not a tainted jury then there is no such thing as a tainted jury."
Mr Trump tweeted about Ms Hart again during today's hearing.
There has rarely been a juror so tainted as the forewoman in the Roger Stone case. Look at her background. She never revealed her hatred of “Trump” and Stone. She was totally biased, as is the judge. Roger wasn’t even working on my campaign. Miscarriage of justice. Sad to watch!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2020
Stone's attempt to get a new trial is based on the allegation that Ms Hart misled the court during the jury selection process.
Before his trial, which took place in November, she was one of 120 potential jurors to answer a questionnaire, which was designed to weed out unsuitable candidates.
Questions included whether the prospective jurors had ever run for office, from which sources they got their news, and which political commentators they usually watched.
Judge Jackson and Stone's lawyers removed 58 potential jurors from the list, but Ms Hart was not one of them.
"Is there anything about (Stone's) affiliation with the Trump campaign and the Republican Party in general that gives you any reason to pause or hesitate or think that you couldn't fairly evaluate the evidence against him?" she was asked during that process, according to court transcripts.
"No," Ms Hart replied.
Stone's lawyers did not question her further.
As Stone's hearing commenced today, Judge Jackson barred the media and the public from her courtroom, citing an "extremely high" risk of harassment for any of the jurors called to give testimony.
Reporters were sent into a different room, where they were allowed to listen to audio of the proceedings.
She also instructed the lawyers not to refer to any of the jurors by their names.
"I think it's without question that this is a highly publicised case, and in a highly polarised environment, in which the President himself has shone a spotlight on the jury," Judge Jackson said, explaining her decision.
She read out Mr Trump's comments - which accused both herself and the jury of bias - and branded the President's personal attacks, particularly on Ms Hart, as "antithetical to our system of justice".
"The risk of harassment or intimidation of any juror who may testify at a hearing later today is extremely high," Judge Jackson said.
"The President of the United States used his Twitter platform to disseminate a particular point of view about a juror.
"Tucker Carlson (a Fox News host) accused the foreperson of the jury of being an anti-Trump zealot.
"Any attempt to invade the privacy of the jurors or to harass or intimidate them is completely antithetical to our system of justice.
"They deserve to have their privacy protected."
During the hearing, Stone's lawyers admitted they had not googled the names of the potential jurors during the jury selection process - meaning they were unaware of Ms Hart's social media posts criticising Mr Trump.
"Did they have access to the internet?" Judge Jackson asked.
"I think it's a regular practice by trial lawyers these days to google individuals on the jury panel list, wouldn't you agree?"
Accusations of political interference aside, Stone's request might prove to be valid.
Last week, Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano - a frequent critic of Mr Trump, who argued his behaviour was worthy of conviction in his impeachment trial - said Judge Jackson had "a lot of issues" to deal with and it was "pretty obvious" Stone should get a new trial.
"What should the judge do? She should bring this foreperson in. She should bring the four resigned prosecutors in," Mr Napolitano said.
"And she should let Roger Stone's lawyers interrogate the prosecutors. 'What did you know about her and when did you know it, and why didn't you tell us if you knew about her prejudice?'
"I think almost any judge in the country would order a new trial. I'm not so sure about Judge Jackson. I don't know."