The revelation by U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson was another highly unusual twist in the Stone saga, which has included a barrage of tweets from President Donald Trump, threats by the attorney general to quit and the departure of the entire prosecution team following Justice Department leadership’s decision to back off its sentencing request.
Stone has claimed the jury forewoman was biased and requested a new trial; his first such request was denied. During a trial, jurors are not allowed to read news accounts or social media posts about the case or discuss it with anyone until deliberations, but after their verdict is rendered, they are released from duty and can speak publicly if they wish.
Jackson told Stone's lawyers that she had seen nothing to support his claim that something untoward occurred, but because of the unusual circumstances — including the president claiming both the judge and forewoman were biased — she was taking the extra step of questioning jurors.
Eleven of the 14 jurors turned up, and she permitted the lawyers to choose two for questioning on whether anything fishy had happened behind closed doors during trial. They chose a man and a woman, who were questioned by Jackson. The lawyers opted not to question the jurors themselves.
The man said nothing off occurred; they'd weighed the evidence and deliberated to reach a conclusion. The woman said no one brought in a social media post or news article about the case, and no one discussed news accounts during the trial. They both described the process of choosing a foreperson: Several jurors were nominated and the forewoman was chosen by secret ballot.
Jackson later questioned the forewoman, who confirmed she had posted articles critical of Trump's policies online, but said she had done her job as a juror fairly and did not look at media during the trial. Stone's attorneys grilled the forewoman on her social media posts.
Jackson said she would rule at a later date. After Stone was convicted in November, one juror wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, explaining why he felt they were right to convict. And the forewoman spoke about the case in a Facebook post.
Jackson said jurors had faced harassment even before they commented, and she worried for their continued safety. She detailed comments about jurors made by Trump in tweets, by Fox News commentator and Trump supporter Tucker Carlson and right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
The hearing was initially sealed, but Jackson agreed to open it as long as there was no identification of jurors who would testify. "I think it’s without question then that this is a highly publicized case in a highly polarized political climate in which the president himself has shone a spotlight on the jury," she said. “Individuals who are angry about Mr. Stone’s conviction may choose to take it out on them personally.”
Stone's lawyers said they feel they were misled by the forewoman, even though they had her jury questionnaire and had a hired a jury consultant — who they said did no Google searches on potential jurors before the trial. They pointed to articles she sent online in posts made before the trial on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, and other posts on the Russia investigation. Jackson asked why the posts suggest she misled them.
“It's a question about did she lie?" Jackson asked. “I want to know what she lied about in this questionnaire.” Jackson told Stone's lawyers that it didn't matter if she posted articles critical of Trump because that would not mean she could not render a fair verdict.
“It paints a picture that she cares about immigration, she cares about racial justice, that voice comes through,” Jackson said. Stone was convicted on all seven counts of an indictment that accused him of lying to Congress, tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election.
He was the sixth Trump aide or adviser to be convicted on charges brought as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Before the Feb. 20 sentencing, the Justice Department leadership backed away from its initial recommendation just hours after Trump tweeted his displeasure at the recommendation of up to nine years in prison, saying it had been too harsh.
The decision was Jackson's to make. She sentenced him to more than three years in prison plus two years’ probation and a $20,000 fine. Attorney General William Barr defended the decision in an ABC News interview where he also said the president's tweets involving the Justice Department were making it “impossible” for him to do his job. He asked the president to stop tweeting, but just hours later Trump was back at it, saying he had never asked Barr to open criminal investigations — but he had the authority to do so if he wished.
The continued spotlight, in turn, prompted Barr to consider quitting, an administration official told AP. The dust has settled a bit, but it's not clear how Trump will take the most recent news of his longtime ally.
On Tuesday while on a trip to India, he tweeted again about the case. “There has rarely been a juror so tainted as the forewoman in the Roger Stone case,” he tweeted. “Look at her background. She never revealed her hatred of ‘Trump’ and Stone. She was totally biased, as is the judge," he tweeted.
At Stone's sentencing, Jackson said the evidence clearly showed that Stone testified falsely to Congress and repeatedly pressured a potential witness either to back up his lie or refuse to testify. Near the end, her voice rose as she said that Stone's entire defense strategy seemed to amount to “So What?” Stone did not testify and called no witnesses on his behalf.
“This is NOT campaign hijinks. This was not Roger being Roger. You lied to Congress,” she told Stone.
Associated Press Writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.