The Paul Manafort Trial: the government rests its case


By Robert Willmann

Update:  As has been reported, the judge denied the motion for a judgment of acquittal.  The minutes for the court clerk's docket sheet for today, 14 August, are here–

The trial will continue tomorrow, with the judge giving the jury the very important instructions, definitions, and statement of the law that apply to the case.  This document is usually called the "jury charge" or "charge of the court".   It creates the grounds on which the jury will deliberate and decide, and thus is critically important.  It can also be a point of error on appeal if it is not done correctly.  

If the jury returns a guilty verdict, Rule 29 allows a motion for judgment of acquittal to again be made, within 14 days after the verdict or after the jury is discharged, whichever is later.


On Monday, 13 August 2018, the prosecutors from "special counsel" Robert Mueller's group rested the government's criminal case against Paul Manafort [1].  At this point in the procedural context of the trial, the defendant can make a "motion for a judgment of acquittal" [2].  The word "motion" in a civil or criminal case means a request to the judge for some action or relief.  By its name, this motion asks the judge to order an acquittal — the equivalent of a finding of "not guilty" — because the government has not put on evidence that proves each "element" of each crime that is charged against Manafort.  The charges are set forth in the document filed in court by the prosecuting authority at the start of the case called an "indictment".  That paper can be amended or changed as the case moves along before trial by what is usually called a "superseding indictment", which takes the place of the one filed before it.

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29. Motion for a Judgment of Acquittal.  In part–

"(a) Before Submission to the Jury. After the government closes its evidence or after the close of all the evidence, the court on the defendant's motion must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction. The court may on its own consider whether the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction. If the court denies a motion for a judgment of acquittal at the close of the government's evidence, the defendant may offer evidence without having reserved the right to do so.

"(b) Reserving Decision. The court may reserve decision on the motion, proceed with the trial (where the motion is made before the close of all the evidence), submit the case to the jury, and decide the motion either before the jury returns a verdict or after it returns a verdict of guilty or is discharged without having returned a verdict. If the court reserves decision, it must decide the motion on the basis of the evidence at the time the ruling was reserved."

The indictment against Manafort is 37 pages long, but for purposes of a motion for judgment of acquittal, what matters are pages 27-35, which are supposed to state the wording of each criminal law that has allegedly been violated [3].  By tradition in federal court, usually an indictment will have the citations to each criminal offense alleged listed at the beginning, and that is done here on pages 1-2.  When it was filed in February 2018, it made allegations against both Manafort and Richard W. Gates III, but as is known, Gates made a plea bargain that same month and has testified against Manafort in this trial [4].


In order to analyze a criminal case before and during a trial, you take each crime charged as a "count" of the indictment, and check it against the citation of the crime as defined by Congress in the federal criminal law.  Then, you break it up into "elements", which are separate phrases and sentences that you can see will stand alone as items that must be proven by the government (or State), which when put back together track the language of each offense.  You make up your own outline or chart or grid that separates out the language of each crime into the elements, and then you can keep track of the evidence that is introduced during the trial to see if enough has been presented to prove each element of each individual charge.  The government will also have to prove that enough of the indictment took place in the geographical area where it is filed, called a "federal district".  That issue is called "venue".  Furthermore, proof has to be presented of calendar dates that show that the indictment was filed within the time period allowed after the alleged crime took place, which is the "statute of limitations".  Most crimes include a time period in which charges must be filed after the offense happened, or else the person cannot be charged at all.  A crime can also have no time limit in which a charge has to be filed, the usual example being murder, which normally has no statute of limitations.

Judge T.S. Ellis III and his law clerks will have been watching and checking to see if the government has presented proper evidence for each element of each offense charged.  If proof was not presented for just one element of one offense, that entire charge will fall and a judgment of acquittal can be issued by the judge as to that specific count of the indictment.  It has been obvious from media reports about the trial that Judge Ellis has been keeping his eye on whether some evidence has been presented for each element of each charge, especially when the crime includes an element of "willfulness".  He is also a judge who has the guts to grant a judgment of acquittal if he thinks it is warranted. 

A motion for judgment of acquittal is rarely granted, and so if the request by Manafort is denied, it will not be surprising.  Most judges take the easy way out, deny the motion, and let the jury decide.  If all or part of the indictment survives the motion for judgment of acquittal, the trial will proceed, and Manafort and his lawyers will decide whether to put on evidence, or whether they will "rest" without presenting any testimony or other evidence at all.

If there is time to put a motion for judgment of acquittal in writing, it can be done as to part or all of the request.  Whatever is not in writing can be orally stated in open court and recorded by the court reporter.  In this instance, Manafort's lawyer made an oral motion for a judgment of acquittal after the prosecution rested, and has filed a supplement and memorandum in support of the motion relating to counts 29-32 of the indictment–

[1]  The court's docket sheet entry of 13 August 2018 noting that the government has rested–

[2]  Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29–

[3]  The superseding indictment against Manafort and Gates, filed in February 2018–

[4]  The charges Gates pled guilty to, his plea agreement, and his "statement of the offense"–


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