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Closing arguments, jury instructions and maybe a verdict? Major week looms in Trump hush money trial

Big week at Trump trial

The testimony in Donald Trump's New York hush money trial is all wrapped up after more than four weeks and nearly two dozen witnesses, meaning the case heads into the pivotal final stretch of closing arguments, jury deliberations and possibly a verdict.

It's impossible to say how long all of that will take, but in a landmark trial that's already featured its fair share of memorable moments, this week could easily be the most important.

Here's what to expect in the days ahead:

WHAT HAPPENS DURING CLOSING ARGUMENTS?

Starting Tuesday morning, prosecutors and defense lawyers will have their final opportunity to address the jury in closing arguments expected to last for much of the day, if not all of it.

The arguments don't count as evidence in the case charging Trump with falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments during the 2016 presidential election to a porn star who alleged she had a sexual encounter with him a decade earlier. They'll instead function as hourslong recaps of the key points the lawyers want to leave jurors with before the panel disappears behind closed doors for deliberations.

Look for prosecutors to remind jurors that they can trust the financial paperwork they've seen and the witnesses they've heard from. That includes porn actor Stormy Daniels, whose account of an alleged sexual encounter with Trump is at the heart of the case, and Trump's former lawyer and personal fixer Michael Cohen, who testified that Trump was directly involved in the hush money scheme and authorized payments.

It's worth remembering that the defense, which called only two witnesses but not Trump, doesn't have to prove anything or convince jurors of Trump's innocence.

To prevent a conviction, the defense simply needs to convince at least one juror that prosecutors haven't proved Trump's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard for criminal cases.

Expect the defense to try to poke holes in the government's case by disputing Daniels' testimony about her hotel suite encounter with Trump and by distancing Trump from the mechanics of the reimbursements to Cohen, who was responsible for the $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels.

The defense may also assert one last time that Trump was most concerned about shielding his family from salacious stories, not winning the election, when it comes to the hush money that was paid.

And it'll certainly attack the credibility of Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payment and who was accused by Trump's lawyers of lying even while on the witness stand. How much of his testimony the jury believes will go a long way in determining the outcome of the case.

Since the prosecution has the burden of proof, it will deliver its summation last — the reverse order from opening statements, in which the prosecution went first.

ONE LAST THING BEFORE THE JURY DELIBERATES

A critical moment will take place, perhaps Wednesday morning, before the jury begins its deliberations.

Judge Juan M. Merchan is expected to spend about an hour instructing the jury on the law governing the case, providing a roadmap for what it can and cannot take into account as it evaluates the Republican former president's guilt or innocence.

In an indication of just how important those instructions are, prosecutors and defense lawyers had a spirited debate last week outside the jury's presence as they sought to persuade Merchan about the instructions he should give.

The Trump team, for instance, sought an instruction informing jurors that the types of hush money payments at issue in Trump’s case are not inherently illegal, a request a prosecutor called “totally inappropriate.” Merchan said such an instruction would go too far and is unnecessary.

Trump's team also asked Merchan to consider the “extraordinarily important” nature of the case when issuing his instructions and to urge jurors to reach “very specific findings.” Prosecutors objected to that as well, and Merchan agreed that it would be wrong to deviate from the standard instructions.

“When you say it’s a very important case, you’re asking me to change the law, and I’m not going to do that,” Merchan said.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, requested an instruction that someone’s status as a candidate doesn’t need to be the sole motivation for making a payment that benefits the campaign. Defense lawyers asked for jurors to be told that if a payment would have been made even if the person wasn’t running, it shouldn’t be treated as a campaign contribution.

ONCE THE JURY GETS THE CASE

The deliberations will proceed in secret, in a room reserved specifically for jurors and in a process that's intentionally opaque.

Jurors can communicate with the court through notes that ask the judge, for instance, for legal guidance or to have particular excerpts of testimony read back to them. But without knowing what jurors are saying to each other, it's hard to read too much into the meaning of any note.

It's anyone's guess how long the jury will deliberate for and there's no time limit either. The jury must evaluate 34 counts of falsifying business records, so that could take some time, and a verdict might not come by the end of the week.

To reach a verdict, either guilty or not guilty, all 12 jurors must agree with the decision for the judge to accept it.

Things will get trickier if the jury can't reach a consensus after several days of deliberations. Though defense lawyers might seek an immediate mistrial, Merchan is likely to call the jurors in and instruct them to keep trying for a verdict and to be willing to reconsider their positions without abandoning their conscience or judgment just to go along with others.

If, after that instruction, the jury still can't reach a verdict, the judge would have the option to deem the panel hopelessly deadlocked and declare a mistrial.

 



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