Trump investigation: Could grand juror’s words tank charges?

Feb 23, 2023, 6:20 PM | Updated: 6:27 pm
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday...
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

ATLANTA — Almost as soon as the foreperson of the special grand jury in the Georgia election meddling investigation went public this week, speculation began about whether her unusually candid revelations could jeopardize any possible prosecution of former President Donald Trump or others.

Emily Kohrs first spoke out in an interview published Tuesday by The Associated Press, a story that was followed by interviews in other print and television news outlets. In detailed commentary, she described some of what happened behind the closed doors of the jury room — how witnesses behaved, how prosecutors interacted with them, how some invoked their constitutional right not to answer certain questions.

Lawyers for Trump say the revelations offered by Kohrs shattered the credibility of the entire special grand jury investigation. People hoping to see the former president indicted worried on social media that Kohrs may have tanked a case against the former president. But experts said that while Kohrs’ chattiness in news interviews probably aggravated Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who’s leading the investigation, they were not legally damaging.

Willis likely “wishes that this woman hadn’t gone on the worldwide tour that she did,” said Amy Lee Copeland, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney in Georgia who’s not involved in the case. “But is this a headache that is grinding the machine to a halt? It’s not. It’s just one of the many frustrations that attends the practice of law.”

Trump’s attorneys in Georgia, however, are jumping on the interviews.

Drew Findling and Jennifer Little, who represent Trump in the Fulton County case, said they’ve had concerns about the panel’s proceedings from the start but have kept quiet out of respect for the grand jury process. After Kohrs’ interviews, they felt compelled to speak out.

“The end product is, the reliability of anything that has taken place in there is completely tainted and called into question,” Findling said. But he also said he wasn’t attacking “a 30-year-old foreperson.”

“She’s a product of a circus that cloaked itself as a special purpose grand jury,” he said.

Findling and Little hadn’t filed any challenges in the case by Thursday but said they’re “resolute” as to Trump’s innocence and keeping their options open.

“We’re considering everything and anything to look after the interests of our client,” he said.

The special grand jury was impaneled at the request of Willis, who is investigating whether Trump and his Republican allies committed crimes as they tried to overturn his narrow 2020 election loss in the state to Democrat Joe Biden. The panel didn’t have the power to indict but instead offered recommendations for Willis, a Democrat, who will ultimately decide whether to seek charges from a regular grand jury.

Willis’ office has declined to comment on Kohrs’ media appearances, other than to say they weren’t aware ahead of time that she planned to give interviews. Spokesperson Jeff DiSantis also declined Thursday to comment on the statements from Trump’s attorneys.

The former president’s lawyers expressed concern that the special grand jury had been allowed to watch and read news coverage of the case and was aware of some witnesses’ efforts not to testify. Kohrs said prosecutors told the jurors they could read and watch the news but urged them to keep open minds.

Kohrs also shared numerous anecdotes from the proceedings that she found amusing and was very expressive in television interviews, sometimes laughing or making faces.

“It’s not a joking matter,” Findling said. “It’s not a matter for giggles. It’s not a matter for smiles.”

Findling and Little said the district attorney’s office, which advised the special grand jury, should have better educated the grand jurors about the solemnity of the process and the rules and limitations.

“That tone and that rhetoric begins from the top down, and that was set by the district attorney’s office,” Little said.

Trump himself criticized the process in a post on his social media network Wednesday, calling the Georgia investigation “ridiculous, a strictly political continuation of the greatest Witch Hunt of all time.” He expressed dismay at Kohrs “going around and doing a Media Tour revealing, incredibly, the Grand Jury’s inner workings & thoughts.”

Though Kohrs did not publicly name anyone the special grand jury recommended for possible indictment, Trump’s lawyers said she seemed to implicate him in response to questions.

They also said the judge overseeing the special grand jury could have instructed or strongly suggested that the grand jurors not speak publicly until the panel’s full final report was made public. Several parts of the report were released last week, but Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said any section that recommended specific charges for specific people would remain secret for now.

During a hearing last month, a lawyer for a coalition of news outlets, including the AP, urged the immediate release of the full report.

In the federal system, grand jurors are prohibited from talking about what witnesses say or anything that happens in the room. But the Georgia special grand jury oath says only that they cannot talk about their deliberations.

The special grand jury was dissolved Jan. 9, and Judge McBurney told the AP that he later met with grand jurors to discuss where things stood. He said he provided them with the “rules of the road” of what they were legally allowed and not allowed to discuss publicly.

He said they could discuss what witnesses said and what is in the report but could not talk about deliberations because that’s what their oath said.

Trump lawyer Little said she believes some of what Kohrs discussed in interviews was in fact part of deliberations, including when she talked about the credibility of some witnesses, decisions to recommend multiple indictments and the reasons why the grand jurors did not seek to bring Trump in to testify.

Copeland, the former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, noted that Kohrs was cautious — consulting a notebook where she’d written the judge’s instructions before answering some questions — and didn’t describe the discussion and debate that led to the special grand jury’s outcomes.

“I wish she really hadn’t talked about anything,” Copeland added. “But she doesn’t talk about the deliberations. She doesn’t talk about the votes. She simply talks about other things that were happening in the grand jury session.”

University of Georgia law professor emeritus Ron Carlson said that if Kohrs had revealed the names of anyone for whom the special grand jury recommended charges, it’s possible those people could try to use that as grounds to dismiss an indictment. But he wasn’t optimistic about the chances for success.

“I think that any kind of motion to dismiss an indictment based on her comments would have an uphill battle,” Carlson said.

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Trump investigation: Could grand juror’s words tank charges?