How Trump's death penalty tweets can affect a criminal trial

Concerns arise over President Trump's tweets calling for the death penalty for the NYC terror suspect

President Donald Trump is notorious for speaking his mind especially when logged on to Twitter. 

On Wednesday night, the leader of the free world hopped on the social media network, pushing the death penalty for the New York terrorist suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old truck driver from Uzbekistan.

On Thursday morning, Trump reiterated his thoughts, also adding in, sending the terrorist suspect to Guantanamo would take longer than having him go through the federal court system.

While President Trump certainly holds global power, he doesn't act as a judge or jury in the U.S. federal court system. In fact, Mr. Trump doesn't even have a legal background, unlike many presidents in the past.

That said, given his influence in the country and worldwide, can the President's tweets risk the possibility of a tainted trial for the New York terror suspect?

UC Davis professor of law, Irene Joe, explained in an email to ABC10:

"President Trump’s comments taint the process because the prosecutors may feel pressured to perform a certain way, the judge may feel pressured to perform a certain way, and the defense attorney would definitely argue that any push for the death penalty or eventual application of the death penalty violated the defendant’s rights to a fair and impartial jury (maybe even process) because the president of the United States has already put out there on a very wide scale what should happen."

Joe further explained the impact of making comments on Twitter:

"I mean - there is no way you could ask for a venue change here to try to get away from jurors that have been primed to rule a certain way (guilt or punishment phase). One might be able to argue that the prosecutors and judge are professionals and won’t let President Trump’s comments sway them either way but it's a little harder to do that with the lay juror or at the very least would extend the court process because you would have to conduct a deep voir dire that went into that for each potential juror."

This isn't the first time President Trump has put in his two cents on a criminal case. During his campaign, Trump  called former Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a "dirty rotten traitor" while he faced charges of deserting his post in Afghanistan before being captured by Taliban militants. 

Bergdahl, 31, pled guilty last month to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. However, the president's comments on Bergdahl were questioned when the defense asked the judge to dismiss the case, claiming Trump's influence kept the former soldier from getting a fair trial. 

A military judge said during the hearing, he had no doubt in his ability to be fair and impartial in the sentencing. He began deliberating punishment Thursday.

While it isn't against the law for a president to give their opinion on a legal matters, it is generally looked down upon since the argument can be made their level of power and influence can create a bias.

Other presidents have also found themselves under criticism for making comments about a criminal case. In 1970, President Richard Nixon said in front of the press, infamous cult leader, Charles Manson, "was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.", according to the New York Times.

The comments were made prior to Manson's trial for the murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others. The president faced backlash that he had prejudged Manson's outcome. Nixon later backtracked on his words and issued a statement saying in part, he did "not intend to speculate as to whether the Tate defendants are guilty, in fact, or not. All of the facts in the case have not yet been presented. The defendants should be presumed to be innocent at this stage of their trial.”, according to the New York Times article. 

Following Nixon's remarks, Manson's defense attorneys moved for a mistrial. The judge declined taking action, saying there was no basis for a mistrial.

In 2009, President Obama also found himself under fire for suggesting during a series of TV interviews, the suspected Sept. 11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was guilty and deserving of the death penalty.

The former president said people offended by Mohammed’s legal rights during his civilian trial won’t find it “offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.”

Obama then quickly added that he didn't mean to suggest he was prejudging the outcome of Mohammed's trial.

© 2017 KXTV-TV


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