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Judge ‘very skeptical’ of DA’s push to try Trump, 18 co-defendants together in Georgia election case

Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal Constitution/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(ATLANTA) — A Fulton County judge has ordered two defendants in the Georgia election interference case to stand trial together on Oct. 23.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said he was “very skeptical” of District Attorney Fani Willis’ desire to try the remaining defendants’ cases together on that date, but that he would hear more arguments on the matter.

“I’m willing to hear what you have to say on it,” McAfee said.

Both defendants — attorney Kenneth Chesebro and former Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell — had sought speedy trial demands as well as motions to sever their cases from the other defendants, including from each other.

The judge, however, said that severing them from each other would not be needed to achieve a fair trial.

Chesebro, Powell, and 17 others, including former President Donald Trump, have pleaded not guilty to all charges in a sweeping racketeering indictment for alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the state of Georgia. The former president says his actions were not illegal and that the investigation is politically motivated.

Prosecutors told McAfee during the hearing that they expected the trial against the 19 defendants would take four months — not including jury selection — and that the state plans to call over 150 witnesses.

Prosecutor Nathan Wade argued that even if the case was broken up and Chesebro and Powell were tried separately, the DA’s office would “absolutely” need the same amount of time and same number of witnesses to try the case, given they have to prove the entire conspiracy.

“So the court, in the interest of judicial economy, would have to make the decision as to whether or not the court wants to try the same case 19 times,” Wade said.

Chesebro’s attorney Scott Grubman argued that trying Chesebro with the other defendants would be unfair, since Chesebro only engaged in a portion of the conduct alleged in the indictment. Grubman argued that the Fulton County case boils down to three distinct conspiracies: one related to the alternate elector scheme, a second related to tampering with ballot computers in Coffee County, and a third related to the effort to intimate poll worker Ruby Freeman.

“Mr. Chesebro is only concerned in terms of the evidence or allegations with what I’m going to call the alternate elector alleged conspiracy,” Grubman said.

While Grubman recognized that Georgia’s racketeering statute gives prosecutors the ability to charge broader criminal conduct, he argued that connecting Chesebro to unrelated conduct would be unfair to his client.

“Why should Mr. Chesebro have to deal with a jury who’s going to sit there for weeks, if not months, and listen to all of this evidence related to Coffee County and Miss Powell? He’s never been there. He’s never met Miss Powell. He’s never emailed or called her,” Grubman said.

Chesebro’s other attorney, Manubir Arora, said that severing his client from the others would ultimately result in a “clean trial [that] would be much shorter.”

But prosecutors pushed back on that assertion.

“The state’s position is that whether we have one trial or 19 trials, the evidence is exactly the same,” said Fulton County Deputy District Attorney Will Wooten. “The number of witnesses is the same.”

Powell’s attorney argued that she should be tried alone, not with Chesebro, so that he can prove that the DA’s allegations against her regarding the Coffee County data breach are “incorrect” — an effort he says would be “prejudiced” by going to trial alongside Chesebro.

Chesebro faces seven counts, including two counts of conspiracy to commit forgery in the first degree and two counts of conspiracy to commit false statements and writings. According to the indictment, he allegedly conceived “multiple strategies for disrupting and delaying the joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021.”

Powell also faces seven counts, including two counts of conspiracy to commit election fraud. She allegedly helped people tamper with ballot markers and machines inside an elections office in Coffee County, according to the indictment.

Earlier Wednesday, former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows filed his own motion seeking to sever his case, and asked the judge to halt the state prosecution against him while he awaits a decision from a federal judge regarding his earlier request to remove his case to federal court.

Meadows is seeking to have his case moved on the basis of a federal law his attorneys argue requires the removal of criminal proceedings brought in state court to the federal court system when someone is charged for actions they allegedly took as a federal official acting “under color” of their office.

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