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From alleged tax fraud by an ex-president’s real estate firm to a 25-year-old cold case and the death of George Floyd, the coming year will see a raft of high-profile court cases go to trial.
In California, Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart’s alleged killer will attempt to convince a jury he didn’t murder the 19-year-old a quarter-century ago. In Colorado, construction contractor Barry Morphew will argue he wasn’t behind his wife’s mysterious disappearance.
Further east, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard will do battle in a Virginia courtroom over their competing defamation claims. And Prince Andrew will fight off bombshell claims that he raped a teenage girl “lent” to him by disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein and former galpal Ghislaine Maxwell.
Here’s a preview of six of 2022’s most hotly anticipated proceedings:
The Walls Close in on the Trump Organization
The New York State tax fraud case against longtime Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg has its next court date set for July 12, 2022, with a trial potentially beginning in late August or early September—shortly before a new round of sure-to-be-contentious midterm elections will be happening.
Weisselberg is the highest-ranking member yet of Trump’s inner corporate circle to be charged with a crime, and the case against him potentially opens the door to further rounds of charges that could even ensnare Trump himself.
“We have strong reason to believe there could be other indictments coming,” Weisselberg lawyer Bryan Skarlatos said in court this fall.
It’s the closest prosecutors have ever come to the ex-president’s family businesses, which he has reportedly run like a personal fiefdom for decades. According to retired IRS criminal investigator Martin Sheil, the possibility of Trump facing racketeering charges at some point is not out of the question.
Weisselberg was indicted last summer by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, the culmination of an investigation that began in 2018. The filing alleges that Weisselberg and the Trump Organization “devised and operated a scheme to defraud federal, New York State, and New York City tax authorities” to the tune of $1.76 million. This involved paying Weisselberg and other Trump Org exec “in a manner that was ‘off the books,’” the indictment states, accusing Weisselberg of receiving “substantial portions of [his] income through indirect and disguised means” for more than a decade.
According to the indictment, the perks included more than $1 million worth of free rent on Manhattan apartments for Weisselberg and his son; nearly $200,000 in leased Mercedes-Benzes for Weisselberg and his wife; roughly $360,000 in private school tuition for Weisselberg’s grandchildren; money for personal expenses, such as furniture and flat-screen TVs; as well as large sums of cash Weisselberg allegedly used for holiday trips.
He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if convicted of the top charge, second-degree grand larceny.
Former federal prosecutor Andrew Weissman, who headed up the Department of Justice’s criminal fraud section, said in an interview that the “details of the indictment show that prosecutors have extraordinary visibility into the inner workings of the Trump Organization, a trove of incriminating internal records, and the real possibility that tax preparers and others are already cooperating.”
The indictment also accuses the Trump Organization—but not Donald Trump himself—of criminal tax fraud, which is punishable by steep fines. But even though Trump would surely find a way to pay, a conviction could make it nearly impossible for his company to obtain bank loans, get insurance, and could be disqualified from bidding on, or engaging in, certain activities, according to experts.
True to form, the former president has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and lashed out at prosecutors, who he believes have targeted him unfairly.
“The political Witch Hunt by the Radical Left Democrats, with New York now taking over the assignment, continues,” Trump said in a statement after the indictment was unsealed. “It is dividing our Country like never before!”
Reached on Wednesday by The Daily Beast, one of the lawyers on Weisselberg’s defense team, Mary Mulligan, declined to comment. His lawyers have not given any hints as to what their defense strategy will entail. However, Weisselberg has already claimed ignorance in certain matters, insisting that he had signed documents and approved tax filings without having fully read through them.
“We have studied the indictment and it is full of unsupported and flawed factual and legal assertions regarding Allen Weisselberg,” Skarlatos and Mulligan said in a statement after Weisselberg was charged. “We look forward to challenging those assertions in court.”
A Mom’s Mystery Disappearance
Suzanne Morphew set out on a bike ride on Mother’s Day in 2020 and was never seen again. Police embarked on a massive search for the 49-year-old Poncha Springs, Colorado mother and her husband, Barry, put up a $100,000 reward for her safe return.But Barry Morphew, a 53-year-old construction contractor, was soon accused by his brother-in-law of not doing enough to help. Morphew hadn’t cooperated fully with investigators, and refused to take a lie detector test, he said.
After a year-long investigation, which involved more than 135 search warrants, 400 interviews, and some 1,400 tips, Morphew was arrested on May 5, 2021 at a job site near his home. Prosecutors filed a 131-page affidavit laying out reams of evidence they say points to Morphew as his wife’s killer. He stands charged with, among other things, first-degree murder, tampering with a dead body, unlawful possession of a short-barreled rifle, and a misdemeanor offense of voting in his wife’s name in the 2020 presidential election.
Under questioning by FBI agents, Morphew said he submitted Suzanne’s mail-in ballot “because I wanted Trump to win.”
Morphew continued to maintain his innocence as investigators turned their focus on him and the mystery gripped people across the nation. His farcical speculation about his wife’s demise and ongoing attempts to divert attention away from himself helped tee up what promises to be a blockbuster courtroom drama.
Three months after his wife went missing, Morphew spoke off-camera to a local newscaster and floated several theories about what might have happened: Perhaps she had been attacked by a wild animal, he said. Or maybe she had been in a car accident. Or someone could have attacked her on the street, he suggested.
“Honey, I love you and I want you back so bad,” he pleaded on Facebook.
As Suzanne Morphew’s brother said in a statement last May, “I will leave it to the experts of FBI to outline at the trial the cunning personality traits of Barry Morphew. As we look toward the prosecution and a trial, we can only hope for [a] full confession and learn the whereabouts of Suzanne. I doubt that will happen and we all will be left with hearing horrific details that were perpetrated by pure evil.”
In October, Morphew threatened to sue authorities for malicious prosecution.
Morphew’s criminal trial is set to begin in May 2022, defense attorney Iris Eytan confirmed to The Daily Beast. He remains free on $500,000 bond. Suzanne Morphew’s body has never been found.
The Officers Who Stood By as George Floyd Was Murdered
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s 2021 trial for the murder of George Floyd was one of the most significant trials of a generation. Now the three officers accused of standing by as Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes will finally get their turn when they go to trial on state charges in March 2022.
Tou Thao, 35, J. Alexander Kueng, 27, and Thomas Lane, 38, were brought up on state charges in June 2020 of aiding and abetting second-degree murder, and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. Their trial was pushed back from its original date in August so a federal case against the trio could proceed.
Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler has described the prosecutions as the “most important trial of police officers charged in the killing of a Black man.”
“In my view, this is a case where any conviction and punishment—even a short prison sentence—would be better than none,” Butler wrote in an April op-ed. “It would be a step in dismantling the blue wall of silence under which first responders close ranks when they see another officer doing wrong—refusing to intervene even when it would be lifesaving.”
The three cops and Chauvin, 45, lost their jobs the day after bystander video of Floyd’s murder became public, leading to demonstrations and protests around the world.
The feds have accused the three of deprivation of civil rights under color of law, stating in a separate complaint that as Chauvin was pinning an unresponsive Floyd down, “the defendants willfully failed to intervene to stop Defendant Chauvin’s use of unreasonable force. This offense resulted in bodily injury to, and the death of, George Floyd.”
As Floyd lay dying, Thao, Kueng, and Lane “saw George Floyd lying on the ground in clear need of medical care, and willfully failed to aid Floyd,” the federal complaint says.
Floyd died from cardiac arrest due to neck compression and being restrained, according to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner. The official report indicated that Floyd had heart disease and claimed he had fentanyl in his system at the time of his death. However, an independent autopsy commissioned by the Floyd family found that Floyd was healthy and that he had died from strangulation. Both reports declared Floyd’s death a homicide.
Chauvin was found guilty in April 2021 on state charges of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 22-1/2 years in prison. Earlier this month, Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating Floyd’s civil rights. Prosecutors asked the judge for a sentence of 25 years, which Chauvin would serve concurrently with his state sentence.
The Lawsuit That May Bring Down a Prince
A highly-awaited civil trial stemming from sordid allegations of sexual abuse by Prince Andrew will likely get underway sometime in the last four months of 2022, bringing the royal’s stunning fall from grace to an appalling new nadir.
The suit, filed in August by 38-year-old Virginia Giuffre, accuses the prince of raping her when she was just 17. Prince Andrew has been widely condemned over the alleged abuse, and was forced to step down from his public duties and charity work as the accusations became a “major distraction.” He only made matters worse by sitting for an interview with the BBC that one royal-watcher described as “excruciatingly awful,” in which Andrew showed little remorse or empathy for his accuser.
Giuffre alleges that the abuse occurred while she was being illegally trafficked by late financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died in prison while awaiting trial on federal conspiracy and sex trafficking charges, and Epstein’s friend and alleged procurer, Ghislaine Maxwell, who was found guilty of sex trafficking charges on Wednesday. Maxwell could be called to testify in Prince Andrew’s case, along with Meghan Markle, adding to the circus-like atmosphere expected to surround the goings-on.
Giuffre “was regularly abused by Epstein and was lent out by Epstein to other powerful men for sexual purposes,” the lawsuit states. The filing describes one specific episode she says took place at Maxwell’s home in London, during which “Epstein, Maxwell and Prince Andrew forced Plaintiff, a child, to have sexual intercourse with Prince Andrew against her will.”
Another time, Prince Andrew abused Giuffre in Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion, the suit alleges. During the encounter, Giuffre’s lawsuit says Maxwell “forced” Giuffre to “sit on Prince Andrew’s lap as Prince Andrew touched her,” it continues, adding that the prince made Giuffre “engage in sex acts against her will.”
A third allegation laid out in the lawsuit claims Prince Andrew sexually abused Giuffre on Epstein’s private island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Little St. James.
Giuffre complied because she feared “repercussions for disobeying Epstein, Maxwell, and Prince Andrew due to their powerful connections, wealth, and authority,” the filing states.
For his part, Prince Andrew has—so far unsuccessfully—tried to get Giuffre’s lawsuit thrown out. Recently, he argued that Giuffre was 17 when the alleged sex acts occurred, and that the legal age of consent in New York State is 17.
On Monday, the prince’s lawyers claimed Giuffre has no standing to sue in New York because she lives with her husband in Australia, not Colorado, as listed in court papers, and citizens living abroad can’t file suits in U.S. federal court.
Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard... and Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp
Celeb watchers will be glued to a Virginia courtroom in the spring of 2022 as embattled movie star Johnny Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard’s dueling defamation lawsuits go to trial.
If Depp's eye-popping—and unsuccessful—defamation case against a British tabloid that called him a “wife beater” was any indication, the proceedings are likely to be bitter and contentious. The origins of the legal battle can be traced back to a December 2018 op-ed Heard published in The Washington Post. In it, she described herself as a survivor of domestic abuse but did not refer to Depp by name.
However, many observers believed they recognized Depp from certain of Heard’s descriptions. The 58-year-old actor became a pariah of sorts, subsequently losing work such as his franchise role as Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
In March 2019, Depp filed a lawsuit against Heard in Fairfax County, Virginia Circuit Court alleging that his ex-wife defamed him, and asking for $50 million in damages. It was filed in Virginia because the Post’s printing presses are located in Springfield, Virginia, and its online edition is “routed through servers in Virginia,” the suit states.
“The op-ed’s clear implication that Mr. Depp is a domestic abuser is categorically and demonstrably false,” it says. “Mr. Depp never abused Ms. Heard,” it continued, calling Heard’s claims “part of an elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity for Ms. Heard and advance her career.”
In fact, Depp claimed Heard was the one abusing him. The filing says Heard kicked and punched Depp regularly, and once threw a vodka bottle at him which “shattered the bones in the tip of Mr. Depp’s right middle finger, almost completely cutting it off.”
In August 2020, Heard filed a counterclaim alleging that Depp was actively trying to destroy her reputation by way of an “ongoing harassment and online smear campaign.”
“In particular but without limitation, Mr. Depp has initiated, coordinated, overseen and/or supported and amplified two change.org petitions: one to remove Ms. Heard as an actress in the Aquaman movie franchise, and one to remove her as a spokeswoman for L’Oréal,” Heard’s lawsuit states.
It also takes aim at Depp’s initial filing, suggesting that he subjected her to humiliation and abuse, then couldn’t let her go.
“Once Ms. Heard escaped her marriage—only after obtaining a domestic violence Restraining Order from a California Court—Mr. Depp was not satisfied simply to allow Ms. Heard to move on with her life,” it says. “Instead, he continued to victimize her by repeatedly telling friends in profanity-laced messages that he would destroy her, would never stop, and wanted her replaced on an upcoming film. This frivolous lawsuit Mr. Depp has filed against Ms. Heard continues that abuse and harassment.”
Heard is asking for $100 million in damages.
The Sordid Cold Case That Gripped California
Some 25 years after Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart went missing after leaving a party, her classmate, Paul Flores, will finally be tried in 2022 for her murder.
Flores’ chilling past, and the length of time it took to piece together Smart’s baffling disappearance, have set the stage for a closely watched trial.
Smart disappeared on May 25, 1996, and Flores was the last person to see her alive. Smart’s body has never been recovered but she was legally declared dead in 2002. A criminal complaint filed April 14, 2021 accuses Flores, now 44, of killing the 19-year-old while Flores “was engaged in the commission of, or attempting to commit, the crime of Rape.”
Prosecutors in San Luis Obispo County have introduced into evidence personal accounts by more than 20 women who, variously, accused Flores of past extreme sexual aggression and even rape. When sheriff’s investigators searched Flores’ home in 2020, they found homemade videos of Flores having sex with unconscious women and so-called date rape drugs, court filings state.
According to police, his online history included searches for videos of women being abused. An external hard drive cops discovered in Flores’ house reportedly contained a folder titled “Practice,” in which investigators located a video of a woman with a ball gag in her mouth.
Flores’ 80-year-old father, Ruben, is also facing charges of accessory to murder after the fact, for allegedly helping his son hide Smart’s dead body.
Last March, police cadaver dogs hit on a patch of dirt underneath Flores’ deck, reportedly detecting the presence of human blood.
In a statement after the charges were announced, San Luis Obispo District Attorney Dan Dow said, “These charges mark a major milestone. Today, we make the first move toward bringing justice to Kristin, her family, and the people of San Luis Obispo County.”
Ruben Flores was freed on bail, pending trial. Paul Flores remains jailed. Their trial is set to begin in April 2022.