Politics

Trump friend Roger Stone denied new trial by judge

Key Points
  • A federal judge on Thursday denied a request for a new trial by President Donald Trump friend Roger Stone, who was convicted last fall of lying to Congress and witness tampering.
  • Stone, 67, had sought a new trial based on his allegation that the jury forewoman committed misconduct by lying on a questionnaire as the panel was being selected.
  • Judge Amy Berman Jackson's denial of that motion sets the stage for the Republican political operative to soon begin serving a 40-month prison term.
Roger Stone arrives for his sentencing at the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington, DC on February, 20, 2020.
Marvin Joseph | The Washington Post | Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday denied a request for a new trial by President Donald Trump friend Roger Stone, who was convicted last fall of lying to Congress and witness tampering, flatly rejecting his claim of juror misconduct.

Stone, 67, had sought a new trial based on his allegation that the jury forewoman lied on a questionnaire as the panel was being selected.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson's denial of that motion theoretically sets the stage for the Republican political operative to begin serving within two weeks a 40-month prison term for felonies related to lying to a House committee about his discussions with members of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

Jackson had suspended that sentence from taking effect until she ruled on the motion for a new trial in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

But Stone is certain to appeal his conviction now that his bid for a retrial has failed.

And it is not clear if he will be denied a release bond while that appeal is pending, particularly given the coronavirus outbreak. Attorney General William Barr has urged the Bureau of Prisons to release inmates who are eligible for home confinement and vulnerable to Covid-19 because of their advanced age or underlying health conditions, in an effort to limit infections in federal lockups.

Stone's lawyer, Seth Ginsberg, when asked for comment about the ruling said ''At this point, we are reviewing the decision and will determine how to proceed in the coming days.''

Trump has not ruled out pardoning Stone, a Florida resident who has for decades embraced a public persona of a dirty political trickster.

The president has repeatedly criticized the prosecution of Stone, who was charged in the case by then-special counsel Robert Mueller.

In her ruling, Jackson rejected Stone's argument that the jury forewoman, Tomeka Hart, had lied during jury selection and had exhibited such a bias against Trump on social media that it should have ruled her out from deciding Stone's fate.

That argument had been supported in late February by Trump himself, in a Twitter post.

"The defendant has not shown that the juror lied; nor has he shown that the supposedly disqualifying evidence could not have been found through the exercise of due diligence at the time the jury was selected," Jackson wrote in her decision Thursday.

"Moreover, while the social media communications may suggest that the juror has strong opinions about certain people or issues, they do not reveal that she had an opinion about Roger Stone, which is the opinion that matters," the judge wrote.

"The assumption underlying the motion – that one can infer from the juror's opinions about the President that she could not fairly consider the evidence against the defendant – is not supported by any facts or data and it is contrary to controlling legal precedent," Jackson wrote.

"The motion is a tower of indignation, but at the end of the day, there is little of substance holding it up."

Jackson a number of times called out Stone's lawyers for raising the issue of Hart's social media posts only months after jury selection and after the trial was finished. She noted that they had failed to discover those posts during jury selection or the trial, even though they were public.

"At the time of the trial, though, the defense made a strategic choice not to look for social media information. None of the seven lawyers or the two jury consultants on the defense team performed the rudimentary Googling that located this set of Facebook and Twitter posts," Jackson wrote.

And the judge at one point in her decision referenced Stone's earlier political hero, President Richard Nixon, citing a 1975 ruling in which the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia "refused to equate views about President Nixon with an inability to be impartial to someone who worked in the White House, an even closer connection than the one here."

Stone has a tattoo of Nixon's face on his back.

Jackson, in a separate order, said, "The defendant must surrender for service of his sentence at the institution designated by the Bureau of Prisons at such time as he is notified by the U.S. Probation or Pretrial Services Office, but no earlier than fourteen days after the date of this order."

Stone was convicted last fall in Washington federal court of seven felony counts.

Jurors found that he lied to a House committee about talked with Trump's presidential campaign about his efforts to get information from the document disclosure group WikiLeaks about emails stolen by Russian agents from John Podesta, the head of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and from the Democratic National Committee.

The emails were made public by WikiLeaks in 2016. Disclosures of their contents embarrassed Clinton's campaign and the DNC.

Jurors also found that Stone had threatened his associate Randy Credico, a New York comedian, in an effort to get Credico to back up his misstatements to the House committee.

In February, as Stone's sentencing date approached, a controversy erupted over Trump's public statements about the case, and over the involvement in the case of Attorney General William Barr.

The uproar led directly to Stone's request for a new trial.

VIDEO1:1001:10
Trump's longtime friend Roger Stone just got sentenced to 40 months in prison

Four prosecutors who handled Stone's trial filed a sentencing recommendation in mid-February with Jackson, urging her to impose a prison term of seven to nine years.

Hours after the filing, Trump blasted the recommendation on Twitter.

And hours after the tweet, the Justice Department, under Barr's direction, indicated that a new sentencing recommendation for Stone would be filed.

The recommendation called for Stone to receive a prison term that would be "far less" than the original filing by trial prosecutors. The revised filing did not specify a length of time that Stone should be locked up.

All four trial prosecutors quit the case the day the new filing was made, in apparent protest of being overruled by Barr. One of the prosecutors resigned from the Justice Department altogether.

More than 2,000 former Justice Department employees, among them ex-top prosecutors and department officials, signed a letter calling on Barr to resign for overruling his line prosecutors in apparent reaction to Trump's ire.

Barr denied that his decision to overrule the first sentencing recommendation was in response to pressure from Trump.

On the heels of that action, the forewoman in Stone's trial jury, Hart, posted a message on her Facebook page that was supportive of the four trial prosecutors.

"I want to stand up for Aaron Zelinsky, Adam Jed, Michael Marando, and Jonathan Kravis — the prosecutors on the Roger Stone trial," Hart wrote in her post. "It pains me to see the DOJ now interfere with the hard work of the prosecutors. They acted with the utmost intelligence, integrity, and respect for our system of justice."

After an article about Hart's post was published, Mike Cernovich, a right-wing commentator, found and highlighted other social media posts that Hart had made which were critical of Trump and which, in at least one instance, referenced Stone's arrest in early 2019.

Stone then filed a motion seeking a new trial, claiming that Hart had committed misconduct.

Stone's lawyers argued in court papers that Hart "misled the Court regarding her ability to be unbiased and fair and the juror attempted to cover up evidence that would directly contradict her false claims of impartiality."

At a hearing on that issue, Hart testified that she did not read news accounts or Twitter posts about the trial when she was serving on the case, and denied deleting any posts she had made on social media.

She also testified that she gave an "honest answer" on her jury questionnaire when it asked whether she had ever posted anything on social media about Stone. Hart had written that she was unsure if she had made such a post.

She had, in fact, retweeted an article that mentioned him shortly after his arrest.

"That was the honest answer on Sept. 12. That's why I didn't check yes or no," Hart testified.

Stone's lawyers admitted at that hearing that neither they, nor jury consultants retained by the defense team, had done a search for social media posts by Hart and other jurors before the trial began.

"I think it's a regular practice by trial lawyers these days to Google individuals on the jury panel list, wouldn't you agree?" Jackson asked in a pointed question to one of Stone's attorneys during the hearing.

Stone's attorneys also had not objected to Hart being seated on the jury despite her having run for Congress as a Democrat in Tennessee.