"A very clever strategy": Georgia lawyers explain speedy trial request could spell "chaos" for Trump

Georgia courts are "extremely reluctant" to sever defendants from joint trials, legal expert says

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published September 6, 2023 5:26AM (EDT)

Sidney Powell, Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sidney Powell, Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

With 19 co-defendants scrambling to devise different legal strategies for their defense, the Georgia election interference case could be embarking on its most chaotic phase yet.

Last week, Donald Trump officially announced his intent to separate his case from the group. The move came after at least two defendants in the scheme to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia tried in court to separate their cases from the other 17 alleged co-conspirators. Despite the overall indictment's sprawling scope, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis then announced that her office is prepared to meet at least one defendant's request for a speedy trial next month. Meanwhile, other defendants are trying to move their cases to federal court.

Trump legal advisers Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, both of whom helped the former president in matters related to the 2020 election, recently requested that their cases be detached from other co-defendants and quickly taken to trial. Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee approved the Oct. 23 trial date for Chesebro. Powell's request is still pending.

"Moving for a speedy trial here is a very clever strategy," Andrew Fleischman, Atlanta defense attorney, told Salon. "It is a much easier way to get a severance from the other co-defendants, which means less spillover from the evidence against them, as well as a shorter, more affordable trial."

On top of this, paying a lawyer to sit through six months or a year of trial is "prohibitively expensive," he added.

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Unlike the other defendants who requested a speedy trial, the ex-president's legal strategy has primarily focused on delaying his trials. Trump's legal team filed a motion to sever his case from the other defendants.

"Respectfully, requiring less than two months preparation time to defend a 98-page indictment, charging 19 defendants, with 41 various charges including a RICO conspiracy charge … would violate President Trump's federal and state constitutional rights to a fair trial and due process of law," his legal team argued in a filing. 

Willis has reiterated her desire to try all 19 Georgia defendants together in a sweeping racketeering case, telling the judge that her office "maintains its position that severance is improper at this juncture and that all Defendants should be tried together," ABC News reported last week. 

Defendants who are requesting a speedy trial may also "be hoping to catch the DA off of balance," Caren Myers Morrison, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New York and associate professor of law at Georgia State University, told Salon.

"Requesting a speedy trial in basically two months is pretty aggressive," Morrison said. "I assume that their hope is that she won't quite be ready… That's usually the reason why people want a speedy trial. It's because they think they have a better chance to force the prosecution into some kind of disarray."

Prosecutors charged both Powell and Chesebro with racketeering over their alleged efforts to undermine the 2020 election. Chesebro, who faces seven charges, authored multiple memos outlining a plan to assemble slates of fraudulent electors in key swing states to overturn the 2020 election results, while Powell is charged in connection with a breach at an elections office in Coffee County.

"The biggest disadvantage is that there just aren't that many prosecutors in Fulton County who have the training and experience to try a case this big and unusual in the face of well-funded opposition," Fleischman said. "The RICO count is broad enough that Willis can still tell the whole story in each courtroom if she chooses. The problem will be having enough bodies to do that well in parallel state and federal proceedings."

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But courts are also "extremely reluctant" to sever defendants from joint trials, pointed out Bennett Gershman, a former New York prosecutor and law professor at Pace University.

"It puts prosecutors at a disadvantage in having to reuse evidence and witnesses, and gives defendants who will be tried in the future a preview of the prosecutor's case," Gershman said. 

While Trump and his co-conspirators closely monitor what happens as legal proceedings take place in Fulton County courts, their legal team "will be taking notes on the tactics displayed in the courtroom," reported The Daily Beast.

"If Fani Willis gets three convictions with three defendants, that will put a lot of pressure on all the remaining defendants," Morrison said. "If she can put this away quickly, that'll strengthen her hand considerably. But, If they all get acquitted, that would be bad. It's really going to depend on what happens."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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