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Mueller seeking immunity for five witnesses

Special counsel Robert Mueller is asking a federal court to provide immunity for five unidentified witnesses slated to testify against former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort at his financial crimes trial.

Posted: Jul. 18, 2018 5:34 PM
Updated: Jul. 18, 2018 5:50 PM

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judge are hashing out the final details of Paul Manafort's trial with just eight days to go before it begins -- including whether five witnesses will be forced to testify and if the schedule will change.

The former Trump campaign chairman's jury trial in the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia begins July 25. He faces 18 charges of bank fraud and foreign bank account allegations. If found guilty he could face a sentence of more than 300 years in prison. He is currently in jail in Alexandria, Virginia, for alleged witness tampering, after losing his bail in a separate criminal proceeding.

Witness immunity

Special counsel Robert Mueller asked the judge on Tuesday to sign off on immunity for five unidentified witnesses slated to testify against Manafort beginning next week.

If granted, that means the witnesses' testimony couldn't be used against them in later court cases.

Mueller is not disclosing the names of the witnesses at this time so as not to create "risk of undue harassment" and because the details "could lead to reputational harm," according to a proposal from the prosecutors.

In theory, the move to grant the witnesses immunity prevents them from invoking their Fifth Amendment rights and staying silent on certain questions when testifying against Manafort.

Mueller says the witnesses haven't been publicly identified in the case. Nor have they been charged, Mueller's office said.

Staying in place

The proceedings won't be moved to Roanoke, Judge T.S. Ellis said, after Manafort and his lawyers requested that the trial be shipped out of Alexandria to the southwestern Virginia city.

Manafort had argued he couldn't have a fair trial in Alexandria because it's in the Washington area. He specifically feared the area's anti-Trump political leanings and intensive media climate. People around Roanoke, he argued, would have followed his situation less closely and would be less politically charged against him.

But Ellis said that wouldn't be the case once a jury was selected. The attorneys and the judge will have the chance to root out any potential jurors' biases in Alexandria during jury selection next week. Manafort's 12-person jury, plus alternates, will draw from the nearly 3 million people living across Northern Virginia, including areas with more conservative voters.

"Nationwide press coverage of defendant's trial will persist from now until the end of trial and perhaps beyond. Therefore, the proximity of defendant's pretrial publicity to the start of his trial will be the same in Alexandria as it would be in Roanoke or Kansas City or Dallas," Ellis wrote in an order denying Manafort's request to move the trial.

Ellis also wrote that the political leanings of an area shouldn't factor into a trial's location. "It would be inappropriate for courts to move trials around the country in cases of this sort until a district could be found where a defendant's political views were shared by at least as many persons in the district as those with contrary views."

Manafort has also asked to postpone the trial until the fall or later. Ellis has not yet made a decision on that.

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