A Georgia judge ruled Thursday that Donald Trump and 16 other co-defendants won’t have to go to trial in October with two others who have sought a speedy trial, effectively denying an Atlanta-area prosecutor’s bid to try all 19 together in the sprawling criminal case alleging interference in Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said in a Thursday order that he could move to sever additional cases but said for now that former Trump campaign attorneys Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell will stand trial beginning Oct. 23. He did not issue a trial date for Trump and 16 other associates, but he denied a bid by former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and others seeking to pause proceedings while their efforts to move their cases to federal court play out.
McAfee wrote “that severing the remaining 17 co-defendants is simply a procedural and logistical inevitability.”
“Severance is an absolute necessity. Additional divisions of these 17 defendants may well be required,” the judge added. “That is a decision for another day once the many anticipated pretrial motions have been resolved and a realistic trial date approaches.”
An Atlanta-area prosecutor leading the case has argued that separate trials would be a “logistical quagmire” for the court system, witnesses and anyone else involved in the case. Setting trial dates will likely be a challenge for McAfee, given an avalanche of motions from the various defendants. Among the challenges: Trump does not want to be tried with anyone seeking a speedy trial, and Meadows wants to stand trial alone, but only after he exhausts his appeals on his request to move his case to federal court.
McAfee is presiding over a motions hearing Thursday for Chesebro and Powell, the second in a series of what he said would be weekly hearings to listen to arguments on dozens of pending motions in the overall case – including filings from Trump and several of his co-defendants seeking to dismiss charges.
The 34-year-old judge, appointed earlier this year to the Fulton County bench, has also made clear he wants to get a logistical handle on the high-profile case involving the former president and current 2024 Republican presidential hopeful – who is also charged in three other criminal cases scheduled for trial next year, including a separate federal case alleging that he conspired to overturn the 2020 election to stay in power.
McAfee is likely to consider several competing issues as he weighs a potential trial schedule, including the divide among defendants who have invoked their right to be tried quickly; the requests from Meadows and at least four others so far who are seeking to move their cases to federal court; and a demand from prosecutors to keep all 19 together to reduce the burden on the courts and maintain the integrity of their case.
A Fulton County grand jury last month approved a 41-count indictment charging Trump and his associates in what prosecutors allege was a vast criminal conspiracy to change the outcome of the 2020 election. Chesebro and Powell both requested a speedy trial in the matter – meaning jury selection would need to begin by early November – but asked to be tried separately.
McAfee last week denied those requests and set a joint trial for Chesebro and Powell to begin in late October. He asked Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) and her staff to file a brief ahead of Thursday’s hearing on why the 19 should be kept together – though he was openly skeptical of the request, telling prosecutors that a joint trial of all 19 in a little over a month seemed “a bit unrealistic.”
In a motion late Tuesday, Willis and prosecutors reaffirmed their request for a joint trial of all 19, telling the judge they are ready to try the case in late October. Echoing statements made in court last week, prosecutors argued that because the case charges conspiracy and racketeering, every proceeding – even if it is broken up – would include the same evidence and witnesses, which they estimated last week would take about four months to present to a jury.
“Breaking this case up into multiple lengthy trials would create an enormous strain on the judicial resources of the Fulton County Superior Court,” prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors also argued that splitting up the cases could give the defendants who are tried later an advantage, because they could observe the prosecution’s evidence and case presented at the earlier trial.
But in his Thursday order, McAfee simply declared that trying all 19 defendants together was not logistically possible.
“The Fulton County Courthouse simply contains no courtroom adequately large enough to hold all 19 defendants, their multiple attorneys and support staff, the sheriff’s deputies, court personnel, and the state’s prosecutorial team,” McAfee wrote. “Relocating to another larger venue raises security concerns that cannot be rapidly addressed.”
Pointing to prosecution statement that the trials will remain the same length no matter who is tried, McAfee replied, “Maybe so.” But he called it “only one of many factors that will drive the length of the trial.”
McAfee also said that he had to “consider the ripple effects of a months-long, multi-defendant trial on the local criminal justice system” which he said had the potential of “sidelining” dozens of defense attorneys involved in other cases and preventing him and other Fulton County judges from managing the rest of the pending docket.
Prosecutors seemed to acknowledge McAfee’s skepticism about a joint trial for all 19 beginning next month. They pressed the judge to require defendants seeking to sever the cases from Powell and Chesebro to first waive their right to a speedy trial – preventing a scenario in which someone charged in the case might seek to start a trial in the middle of proceedings against other co-defendants.
Willis and her team also asked McAfee to require defendants to offer more proof that they would not be prepared to go trial next month and to tell the court when they would be ready. McAfee has not yet ruled on this request.
In response to the prosecution filing, Steven Sadow, Trump’s attorney, filed a motion late Tuesday signaling that the former president would waive his right to a speedy trial in exchange for being severed from any co-defendant who seeks one. But he did not specify a requested trial date.
McAfee has given no other hints at how he might move forward with the case as he considers the varying requests some of those charged have made about how they should be tried, if they are unsuccessful at having the entire case against them thrown out.
Along with Trump, five others asked to be tried separately from any co-defendant who seeks a speedy trial: former Trump campaign attorneys Robert Cheeley and John Eastman, former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, and Shawn Still and David Shafer, former Georgia Republican Party officials who are facing charges for their roles in facilitating a slate of false Trump electors.
Scott Hall, a Georgia bail bond company owner who was indicted over his alleged role in the breach of election data in Coffee County, Ga., has asked the judge to sever his case from “all co-defendants other than those involved in the alleged data breach.”
Harrison Floyd, a Republican activist who helped run Trump’s 2020 campaign outreach to Black voters and who is accused of harassing an Atlanta-area election worker, has asked McAfee that he be tried only with the two others charged as part of that alleged plot: Trevian Kutti and Stephen Lee.
In a separate motion made public Wednesday, Floyd’s attorney also asked McAfee to access confidential Fulton County 2020 election data, including absentee ballot information, voting machine reports and other information – material the filing claimed is “relevant and central” to Floyd’s defense against charges he knowingly made false statements about the 2020 election results and election fraud. Floyd has asked McAfee to schedule a hearing on that request.
Meanwhile, another defendant, former Trump campaign attorney Ray Smith, complained in a motion that the case “involves too many defendants” and is too complex for a “jury to comprehend.”
Smith, through his attorneys, argued that McAfee “should sever the defendants into manageable groups so the case can be presented in reasonable bite-size segments that a jury will be able to understand and assimilate in a reasonable amount of time.”
In addition to scheduling and other logistics, McAfee on Thursday is expected to consider a motion from Chesebro, who has asked prosecutors to turn over transcripts of witnesses who testified before a special purpose grand jury that investigated alleged election interference.
Chesebro and others have asked for transcripts as well as the names of the special grand jurors, who heard from 75 witnesses between June and December last year as they gathered evidence as part of Willis’s investigation into Trump and his allies.
The panel’s final report, made public last week, recommended charges for 39 people for alleged election interference – far more than Willis ultimately charged in the case. But the special grand jury’s scope and work has drawn criticism, including from defense attorneys for Trump who previously sought to quash any evidence gathered by the panel.
(c) 2023, The Washington Post · Holly Bailey