Manafort Trial Example of Broken Justice System

BRANDON DURAN: On March 7, Donald Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort was sentenced to just 47 months for bank and tax fraud revealed through the special counsel investigation. The sentence, handed down by Judge T.S. Ellis, fell extremely short of the federal guidelines, which propose 19 and a half to 24 years of jail time. A Reagan appointee, Judge Ellis thought the advised sentencing length was excessive, even though Manafort’s crimes were “very serious.”

Perhaps, if there was a nationwide judicial trend of proposing sentence lengths that fell short of the federal guidelines, we would not frown on Judge Ellis’ leniency or find it out of place. But if you place the 15-year difference between guideline and ruling in the context of America’s broken justice system, it is easy to see how the courts are systematically in favor of rich, white men.

Paul Manafort resembled a pitiful image, wheelchair-bound in a green jumpsuit. Grey-faced and aged, he decried the humilitation and shame he had suffered in the past two years. He pleaded for compassion from the judge. Nevertheless and unsurprisingly, the ex-Trump staffer demonstrated an utter lack of remorse for his crimes, possibly playing his cards for a future pardon from now-President Trump.

The focal point of Judge Ellis’ reasoning for a shortened sentence exemplifies the systemic bias of our current ‘justice’ system. He claimed that other than hiding millions of dollars from the US government and lying to banks to secure loans to keep his luxurious lifestyle afloat, Manafort had lived a “blameless life.” He decided a $50,000 fine and a 47-month sentence, which lasts only 38 more months given that it accounts for the 9 months Manafort has already spent in prison, is“sufficiently punitive.” Apparently being a white male who attended college and law school is an indicator of the quality of one’s character. Ellis also said he took into account the “number of people” who wrote to the Court expressing their admiration for Manafort.

To say that Ellis’ ruling was greeted with shock and criticism is an understatement.

 Laurence Tribe, a Harvard constitutional law professor, offered this comment:

“I’ve rarely been more disgusted by a judge’s transparently preferential treatment to a rich white guy who betrayed the law and the nation.”

Plenty, including Jamil Smith, writer for Rolling Stone, were quick to point out the glaring hypocrisy of the sentencing:

Smith tweeted: “A federal judge in Virginia gave Paul Manafort less prison time for eight counts of bank fraud, tax fraud, and failing to file a foreign bank account report than Crystal Mason got in Texas for voting once while on probation. America.”

 Barbara McQuade, former US attorney and law professor at the University of Michigan, called the sentence “atrociously low.”

 Ellis’ judicial conduct has also fallen under scrutiny. He called himself “Caesar in my own Rome” during the Manafort trial. He also stated his suspicion of independent counsel investigations. But levelling complaints at an individual judge woefully misses the fundamental injustices baked into the criminal justice system. For instance, Ellis sentenced a 37-year old man to 40 years in prison for methamphetamine distribution. Although it might appear that Ellis has individual inherent bias, the 40-year minimum for that type of crime was a minimum passed by Congress.

Mandatory minimums leave little room for a judge to interpret the crime - it leaves the accused with no way to redeem themselves. Instead, it leaves room for redemption among those with resources and wealth - people like Paul Manafort, who shows no sign of redemption and has lived anything BUT a “blameless life.” After all, this man was a member of the Torturer’s Lobby which represented some of the worst war criminals and dictators in the world.

The spectacle that transpired in Ellis’ courtroom proves it once again: the existing criminal justice system is designed to give people like Manafort chances at every step of the way. It is an example of the exclusive system that belongs to the rich, that allows white-collar criminals to evade justice. The system needs changing. In my opinion, preferably not by inflate the sentences of the rich but by reducing the sentences of the poor.

Max Magid