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Georgetown law professor reacts to Trump verdict

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Now we're going to shift from the political back to the legal. Let's bring in Georgetown Law professor and attorney Paul Butler. He's a former federal prosecutor and an expert on criminal law. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PAUL BUTLER: It's great to be here, Scott.

DETROW: What was your reaction to the verdict?

BUTLER: So American juries are fact finders. They had to decide what happened. The trial presented two contrasting stories. Prosecutors said Trump directed business records to be falsified and he did it to benefit his campaign. The defense was that there was this rogue agent, Michael Cohen, who falsified the business records on his own accord, but with Trump's knowledge and approval. And even if the story about Stormy Daniels had come out, it would not have impacted the campaign. Jurors had to decide which story they believed. The prosecution laid out a meticulous but complicated case. It persuaded the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

DETROW: Let's listen to what Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said a few moments ago after the verdict was announced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALVIN BRAGG: While this defendant may be unlike any other in American history, we arrived at this trial and ultimately today at this verdict in the same manner as every other case that comes through the courtroom doors - by following the facts and the law and doing so without fear or favor.

DETROW: I mean, on one hand, he's saying that. On the other hand, this was not like any other case. This is a former president, possibly future president, in a criminal courtroom day after day, and the scene around the courthouse really reflected that.

BUTLER: Still, 12 ordinary citizens held accountable one of the most powerful men in the country, a man who, as you noted, might well be reelected to the highest office. So it is historic for the United States. In many other countries around the world, elected leaders have been prosecuted and convicted, and not only has democracy survived, it's actually been reinforced. The rule of law relies on the ideal that no person is above the law.

DETROW: Nothing says that more than a former president being found guilty by a jury of 12 people. The jury deliberated for not quite two full days, about 10 hours total. Did that surprise you, that a verdict was reached at this point not two full days in?

BUTLER: I was expecting the verdict tomorrow. Often, when jurors are deliberating on Friday, they want to go home. There were 34 counts, but the counts all depended on the same evidence. It was kind of a complicated case for what's ultimately a glorified misdemeanor. Trump's charged with falsifying business records. That gets bumped up to a felony if he's doing it in order to commit another crime or conceal another crime.

So jurors had lots to work with, but they did it quickly. The questions that they sent back to the judge indicated that they were weighing the evidence quite carefully. Some people said they just go with a general sense - yeah, he did it; no, he didn't do it. They really relied on those 55 pages of jury instructions that took an hour for the judge to read. And the verdict seems fair. It seems objective. An appellate court - because this will certainly be appealed - will have the final say about that.

DETROW: Do you have an early sense of how real that possibility is? Because we've talked to a lot of experts who say that there were some key questions here - some of the testimony that was admitted, Stormy Daniels' testimony in particular, the way the jury instructions were read, that there might be some ripe areas for appeal.

BUTLER: So in a high-profile case like this, with defendants who are well-resourced, judges do what's called protecting the verdict, which means if there's a conviction, they know that there's going to be an appeal, so they carefully document. They write the reasons for all of the decisions that they make.

This is a historic prosecution because it's the former president. But in reality, the district attorney of Manhattan brings cases about falsified business records all the time, and so the law here isn't really that unsettled. I expect, based on what we know now and what I saw from closely observing the trial, that the conviction will be sustained.

DETROW: So I just want to clarify. When you've called this a glorified misdemeanor, were you talking mostly about the fact that it's tied to a crime and therefore it's elevated? Or because Trump and his allies have said, hey, this was political. Nobody else would have been charged as a felony here. This was trumping something up that wasn't as serious a crime.

BUTLER: So Trump was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records. That's actually a misdemeanor in New York State. Again, it gets bumped up to a felony if it's done to conceal another crime. But even the felony is what's called class E. It's the lowest-level felony in New York State. People who are first-time convicted of any crime, like Mr. Trump, are unlikely to get any prison time for that crime.

DETROW: Let's talk about that for the last minute or so of this conversation because we have a sentencing date. It's July 11. That's really interesting politically because just a few days later, July 15, the Republican National Convention will nominate Trump for president. But July 11 - tell us generally what happens and what Judge Merchan will be thinking about and weighing as he thinks of a sentence.

BUTLER: All right. First, Mr. Trump will be interviewed by court personnel who will ask questions like whether he's remorseful. They'll ask personal questions about his family history, about what motivated him to commit this crime.

DETROW: Will those become public?

BUTLER: No, they won't.

DETROW: OK.

BUTLER: His lawyer will also be able to submit a brief where he will certainly ask for probation, a limited term of probation. And then it's the judge who decides. Again, even if he gets probation, that's not a light sentence. He'd have to report to a civil service officer who could ask him the most personal questions. If he was to get arrested again or convicted of another crime, he could be sentenced to jail for this crime.

DETROW: So would that include the federal charges that he's currently facing and may go to trial for?

BUTLER: No. It would only include any cases that he picks up...

DETROW: That'll be going forward.

BUTLER: ...After his conviction.

DETROW: OK. OK. When you talk about those possible lower charges, like misdemeanors, things like that, anything that at this moment, off the top of your head, you could see impeding, say, traveling all over the country and running for president?

BUTLER: Not at this point. Again, he'll appeal, and the judge is likely to hold off any sentence until after the appeal is exhausted. If Trump is reelected president, then it's likely, I think, that any sentence, including probation, would be stayed until after he serves his presidency.

DETROW: And of course, this is a state crime, so he can't pardon himself if he goes back into office.

BUTLER: That's right.

DETROW: That's Paul Butler, professor of law at Georgetown and a former federal prosecutor. Thank you so much.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "BUS RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.