A Fulton County judge on Wednesday appeared highly skeptical of trying all 19 defendants together in the sprawling election interference case involving former President Donald Trump.

Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee posed tough questions to Fulton prosecutors, who argued that all of the defendants indicted on racketeering and 40 other charges last month should be tried at the same time, potentially as soon as the end of October.

“It seems a bit unrealistic that we could handle all 19 in 40-something days,” McAfee said. “That’s my initial reaction.”

McAfee gave prosecutors until Tuesday to respond in a court brief.

The judge’s comments came during a 90-minute hearing in which attorneys for two of the case’s co-defendants, lawyers Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, argued that they should be tried separately from one another and the larger group.

At the end of the hearing, McAfee granted Powell’s demand for a speedy trial, setting her trial date for Oct. 23, the same day as Chesebro’s. He denied a push from Chesebro to sever his case from Powell and a motion from Powell to sever her case from Chesebro’s.

Still to be determined is whether just Powell and Chesebro will be tried on Oct. 23 — or whether all 19 defendants will be expected in court that day.

McAfee said he was “very skeptical” of the latter, suggesting that he was sympathetic to arguments from various defense attorneys, including Trump’s, who have argued they had scheduling conflicts and wouldn’t have enough time to get ready. McAfee also indicated that pre-trial motions would take time to adjudicate.

The judge, who was confirmed to the bench in February, also sounded unconvinced by the projected timeline laid out by the district attorney’s office.

Prosecutors estimated that their case would take roughly four months to present at trial, excluding jury selection, and that they plan to call more than 150 witnesses. They said that would be the case if all 19 co-defendants are tried together or if some, including Chesebro or Powell, are severed from the main group.

Deputy District Attorney Will Wooten argued that “evidence against one (defendant) is evidence against all.”

“The state’s position is whether we have one trial or 19″ the evidence and witnesses stay the same, he said, since the state will still need to prove the existence of a conspiracy.

If the recent past is any guide, jury selection could take months or longer. In a separate Fulton County racketeering case against Young Slime Life involving more than a half-dozen defendants, jury selection has dragged on for eight months and no jurors have been selected.

McAfee said jury selection involving 19 sets of defense attorneys who could each strike jurors would be a “different animal” than if it involved one or two teams. He noted it would take substantial time for juror questioning and witness cross-examination to occur.

Prosecutors argued that trying all defendants together would be an economical use of resources, avoid inconsistent verdicts and be better for victims of the alleged conspiracy having to relive their trauma.

The judge acknowledged the expedited timeline for at least some defendants and said that he intended to make “that Oct. 23 trial date stick.” He said he expected to rule on trial schedules for all defendants by early next week.

Looming over the hearing was the fact that U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones is expected to rule in the days or weeks ahead on a push from former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to remove the case from Fulton to federal court. If Meadows succeeds, it’s possible that the entire case — for all 19 defendants — changes venues. Any decision is expected to be appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could lead to substantial delays and confusion.

During the hearing, Chesebro’s attorneys, Scott Grubman and Manny Arora, argued that it was not fair to try Chesebro with Powell, given that they were involved in two different portions of the case. (Chesebro in the appointment of Trump electors in swing states won by Joe Biden, and Powell allegedly with the breach of election data in Coffee County.)

Grubman said Chesebro doesn’t know Powell and has never spoken with her, nor has he stepped foot in Coffee County. Arora said if the two are tried together, evidence about Powell could “spill over” and affect Chesebro in the eyes of a jury during a long trial.

Brian Rafferty, Powell’s attorney, said he was seeking to sever his client from the other co-defendants so he could refute the case facts, which he said prosecutors got wrong.

“She was not the driving force” as described in the indictment, Rafferty said.

Wooten said under Georgia’s racketeering law, it doesn’t matter whether co-defendants like Powell and Chesebro knew one another. They all worked “in furtherance of the same overarching RICO conspiracy” to alter the 2020 election results in Georgia, he said.

“As this enterprise operated in various states… the conspiracy evolved. One thing didn’t work, so we moved on to the next thing,” Wooten said.

Responding to Chesebro attorneys’ concerns that a jury would get evidence against Powell and Chesebro confused, Wooten said potential jury confusion could be addressed by other means. That includes instructions to the jury to separately consider the evidence for each defendant.

-Staff Writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.

More developments

  • A liberal group on Wednesday filed a lawsuit to bar former President Donald Trump from the primary ballot in Colorado, arguing he is ineligible to run for the White House again under a rarely used clause in the U.S. Constitution aimed at candidates who have supported an “insurrection.” The lawsuit, citing the 14th Amendment, is likely the initial step in a legal challenge that seems destined for the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Four months after a civil trial jury found that Donald Trump sexually abused and defamed advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday that still more of the ex-president’s comments about her were libelous. The decision means that an upcoming second trial will concern only how much more he has to pay her. The ruling stands to streamline significantly the second trial, set for January.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

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Credit: Channel 2 Action News