Law professors say Trump sentencing could have implications for years to come 

For more than six weeks, the hottest criminal court case in the United States took legal experts and the rest of America by storm. Then a New Yok jury found former President Donald Trump guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records, all felonies.

For Florida International University law professors H. Scott Fingerhut and retired Judge Phyllis Kotey, the verdict revealed how the case might shape the future of law and democracy in America.

“I’m extremely worried,” explained Kotey, who served on the bench for eight years and was the Eighth Judicial Circuit’s first Black female county judge. “The pillars of our criminal justice system rest on the fact that we expect our judges to be fair and transparent and benevolent. [People] are directly attacking the core of our democratic society and it causes me great distress.

Trump was found guilty of falsifying the records that were made to adult film star Stormy Daniels, meant to hide their affair, and influenced the 2016 presidential election. 

The case proves that not even a former president is above the law. But a question remains: Will the New York case damage America’s perception of a fair court system?

Looking back to the start of Trump’s case on April 15, Fingerhut said the prosecution – led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg – played by “the trial advocacy book.” 

Simply put, the prosecution made a compelling story with evidence and facts.  

The trial started off strong with explicit testimony from Daniels about her affair with Trump. The prosecution ended its argument with former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who caused chaos in the courtroom, but attracted the jury’s attention the entire time.

The defense team’s loss was likely connected to the former president orchestrating his lawyers from behind the scenes. 

“The entire strategy was to deny the affair instead of focusing on that potential iffyness of whether this was actually, under the law, a crime to influence an election,” said Fingerhut, a criminal defense attorney, who practices in state and federal courts, and assistant director of the trial advocacy program at FIU law school. 

Trump’s defense team might have been more successful by bringing the jurors to the crime scene by telling a story, and at the same time, poking holes in the prosecution’s narrative – which they failed to do.

“You don’t want to take them to the bedroom,” he added. “You want to take them to the election and whether it was influenced and whether that’s even a crime, or if it’s a crime the way Mr. Trump was doing it by falsifying business records.”

Judge Juan Merchan will sentence Trump on July 11. Afterward, Trump’s defense team has 30 days to submit an appeal for a new trial. Until then, he could sentence Trump to jail, do community service or serve court-ordered probation. 

Kotey thinks the former president is extremely unlikely to serve time behind bars. The maximum sentence is four years. 

The former judge says his violations of the gag order might be considered in Merchan’s sentencing decision. A hearing to address Trump’s violations of the gag order will likely be a separate proceeding. 

“The judge can certainly punish him for failure to abide by the gag order, but that’s not a criminal offense,” Kotey said. “I could think of how it could be relevant by saying ‘I’m reluctant to sentence you to a certain condition because you’ve shown that you are not likely to abide by the orders of the court’.”

Trump has three more cases. In Georgia, he faces potentially more criminal charges accusing him, and others, of 2020 presidential election interference in the state’s voting system. In the nation’s capital, he is accused of conspiring to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. 

And in Miami, he faces federal counts of mishandling classified documents – though that case is expected to be heavily delayed. 

Fingerhut says it’s impossible to predict how those cases will play out due to many factors, including the quality of evidence. 

But, one thing is for sure: Trump’s sentence in the New York case will impact “everyone and everything.” 

The future of legal cases in America will feel the effects of Trump’s sentence bleed into the court’s jurisprudence and become a factor in whether Americans trust the law. 

“I think [Trump’s case] is going to become an example that people are going to use to show that the system is not fair,” Kotey said. “Because [America is] so polarized, it is hard sometimes to even get an honest, non-emotional assessment of what is and isn’t true.”

Alexandra Howard is a senior pursuing a dual degree in digital journalism and political science. She intends to later graduate from law school and become an immigration lawyer and political journalist.