Trouble unexpectedly broke out Thursday at a criminal trial for an associate of former President Donald Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani as a defense attorney accused a prosecutor of making a remark in the courtroom about shooting him.
Defense lawyer Joseph Bondy complained that as he returned to the courtroom during an afternoon break in the jury trial of Giuliani associate Lev Parnas, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hagan Scotten was talking to several FBI agents about needing "one bullet" and "a sidearm." Bondy said the prosecutor seemed to be referring to him.
"Whatever was said was completely inappropriate and has no place in this courtroom," Bondy said to Judge Paul Oetken.
During a discussion after jurors were excused for the day, Scotten said the comment was made "in jest" because of Bondy's confrontational response to a disagreement the two men had about the prosecution's use of a video exhibit that Bondy viewed as racist.
Prosecutors played the video, which a defendant in the case seemed to have found on the internet and exchanged in an online chat, suggesting that $500,000 obtained from a Russian backer for a cannabis project wasn't an ordinary loan. But Bondy made a point of highlighting to jurors in cross-examination that the money-related altercation in the video involved African Americans.
Scotten said he approached Bondy during a break to say that he thought the racial reference was unprofessional. The prosecutor said the defense lawyer disagreed "strongly" and later looked "angry," like he was challenging Scotten to a fight. The prosecutor said that led him to make the comment about "a duel."
"It was not a threat," the prosecutor insisted.
"I heard him say, 'Does anyone have a sidearm?'" Bondy said. "I didn't hear anything about a duel. Whatever it was, it was inappropriate ... an inappropriate attempt to chill my advocacy in this courtroom ... That's what I'm upset about."
Oetken said he believed Scotten didn't mean it literally or as a threat. "He was making a joke. ... Maybe you interpreted it differently," the judge told Bondy. The judge added to the prosecutor: "If it was a joke, it should have been the kind of thing you need to be careful about."
Oetken said lawyers on both sides are tired and sometimes tempers get short. "I'm glad the jury wasn't here. I don't think this affects the trial," the judge said. "You need to be cordial and you need to be professional and I say that to everybody."
The judge also said he didn't see any racial angle to the exhibit the government played. "I don't see how race is relevant," he said.
However, Bondy said he thought the government‘s picking that video out of the mass of evidence in the case unnecessarily stirred up racial feelings. "Having three children of color, it impacted on me, based on my life experience," the defense lawyer said. "It affected me in a way I thought was offensive. ... Was that really necessary in the case?"
Bondy asked for an apology, but Scotten didn't offer one. Indeed, he suggested the defense lawyer was milking the episode for strategic advantage.
Oetken said he wouldn't tell the prosecutor to say he was sorry. "I'm not going to make anyone apologize, because I think there are differing interpretations of what happened," the judge said.
In the second day of witnesses in the trial over alleged funneling of Russian money into U.S. campaigns as part of a scheme to gain U.S.-based cannabis licenses, jurors spent much of the day hearing from an FBI agent who was on the stand to highlight various texts, WhatsApp messages and other communications between Parnas and other defendants in the case. The evidence included numerous photos of Parnas and other figures in the case at political events and fundraisers in 2018 with people like then-gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis of Florida, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.