Judge in Trump hush-money trial instructs jury on law and standards as deliberations begin


Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York, Wednesday, May 29, 2024.

Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York, Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

Court was in session for the first — and perhaps only — Wednesday of Donald Trump’s criminal trial on hush-money charges in New York City.

The judge previously instructed all involved that proceedings would begin relatively late – at 10 a.m. EST instead of the typical 9:30 a.m. start time – due to marathon closings delivered the day before in order to dispense with summations in one fell swoop, including the occasional recess and one lunch break. In sum, the defense spent just shy of three hours delivering its closing arguments while the prosecution spoke for nearly five hours delivering their own closing.

New York County Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan began the long process of giving instructions to the far-flung group of Manhattanites who make up the jury of Trump’s peers and who now sit in judgment on the facts that will determine the guilt or innocence – for the first and perhaps only time – of a former U.S. president.

Over the course of one month, jurors heard from over 20 witnesses and saw over 200 pieces of evidence, including emails, call logs, text messages, signed agreements, transcripts, and more.

The jury was told by the state that these documents corroborated a criminal scheme to influence the 2016 election – a scheme set off when Michael Cohen, 57, took out a $130,000 home equity loan to keep adult content creator Stormy Daniels, 45, from going to the press about an alleged affair with Trump in October 2016. The defense insisted Trump had nothing to do with any of it.

“You are the judges of the facts,” Merchan told the jury as he began the instruction process by seeking to minimize his own role in the trial, according to a report by Just Security fellow Adam Klasfeld.

The judge explained that none of his rulings, or actions otherwise, should carry any weight regarding the facts of the case – and stressed that if any juror had an inkling that the judge did have such an opinion, they should disregard those thoughts during their deliberations.

“It is not my responsibility to judge the evidence here,” Merchan told the jury, according to a report by Newsweek reporter Katherine Fung. “It is yours.”

Much of Merchan’s speech continued on in this way – reciting pro forma standards of what rules govern jury deliberations in Empire State courts.

“The burden of proof never shifts from the People to the Defendant,” the judge noted at one point – explaining the basic thrust of criminal law – and adding that the burden in question is neither “probably” guilty nor does it require absolute certainty to establish guilt.

“You should be guided solely by a full and fair evaluation of the evidence,” the judge said.

Explanations specific to the complex case – which involves federal and state election laws, tax law, and state fraud law – ran the gamut.

Merchan took some time discussing what constitutes a “thing of value” under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), the federal law being used by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg to, somewhat controversially, transform some of the allegations against the 77-year-old defendant from misdemeanors into felonies.

The court also explained the state’s theory of guilt is predicated on New York Election Law §17-152, which is a misdemeanor offense that criminalizes a conspiracy “to promote or prevent the election of any person to a public office by unlawful means,” according to a report by Law&Crime Network reporter Terri Austin.

Bragg’s office did not expressly criminalize the payoff to Daniels — but, rather, an alleged “cover-up” of the election influence scheme.

The district attorney says the underlying crime is when Trump signed off — personally signing in some cases — on 34 different invoices, ledger entries and checks that align with the 34 alleged violations, when upgraded, of New York Penal Law Section 175.10. Those allegedly fraudulent documents all had to do with $420,000 worth of payments made to Cohen throughout 2017. In company records, those payments were for “legal services.” Both the state and Cohen claim those designations were intentionally incorrect.

At 11:23 a.m. EST, Merchan concluded his instructions to jurors – spending just over an hour and 10 minutes reciting the relevant laws and standards.

A few minutes of conferral with lawyers and court staff followed.

The verdict clock began to toll just before 11:30 a.m.

The 45th president’s fate, as a felon or falsely accused, now remains to be decided inside of a small room at 100 Centre Street in one of the many courthouses that form the sprawling judicial complex adjacent to New York City’s first-built but third-largest Chinatown.

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