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What to watch for in Trump trial’s closing arguments, from a law school professor who teaches and studies them

Jules Epstein, Temple University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

After more than four weeks of often sordid testimony, accusations of lying and even a warning from Judge Juan M. Merchan to a witness to stop giving him the side-eye, lawyers in the hush-money case involving former President Donald Trump are expected to make their closing arguments on May 28, 2024.

In a jury trial, opening statements are meant to provide jurors a narrative framework to organize all the bits and pieces of evidence and testimony.

Closing arguments are not meant to simply regurgitate the testimonies of all 22 witnesses or review the roughly 200 exhibits. For both prosecutors and defense attorneys, the closing arguments serve to tell the jury why the evidence is believable or not, why and how the facts are linked or not and, most importantly, why their decision to either acquit or convict is moral and just.

As a I teach law school students and practitioners, that moral message in closing arguments should link back to themes already woven into the trial.

In this criminal case, one of four filed against Trump, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged the former president with 34 counts of falsifying business records to hide a $130,000 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels as part of an effort to influence voters’ knowledge about him before the 2016 presidential election.

Trump entered a plea of not guilty and did not testify.

 

For the prosecution, that moral message, as prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said earlier in the trial, is this: “It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

For the defense, its closing argument should include an equally direct statement, much like what Trump defense attorney Todd Blanche has said: “President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes. The Manhattan district attorney’s office should never have brought this case.”

There is at least one more purpose in closing arguments. It is to arm jurors with the arguments they need – either to shut down naysayers or gently persuade those in doubt – for when the real battle occurs, inside the jury room during deliberations. One way to do that is to find language from the instructions the judge will give to the jury, restate them in plain English and, in effect, make it look as if they are aligned with the judge and the law.

A major goal of both prosecutors and defense attorneys is to untangle all of the evidence and testimony. They must cut through the distracting details and tell jurors, in effect, “Now you know why this witness was important” or “the document doesn’t lie – it shows you …”

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