Legal experts stunned by DA's 'barbaric' move to send Manafort to Rikers Island

The decision to send one of the highest-profile Trump campaign members prosecuted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to New York CIty's infamous Rikers Island jail has stunned many in the legal community -- and even some Democrats not normally sympathetic toward Mueller targets.

Fox News reported earlier this week that Paul Manafort, who served as President Trump's campaign chairman, is being transferred from a federal prison to New York City's Rikers Island, notorious for gang violence and housing some of the most infamous violent offenders. A state judge ordered the transfer at the request of New York City District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr., who is pursuing a case against Manafort involving alleged residential mortgage fraud, falsified business records and more.

Criminal defense attorneys swiftly slammed the decision.


"It is yet another example of the weaponization of the criminal process for partisan advantage," defense attorney Alan Dershowitz wrote in an opinion piece for Fox News. The Harvard Law professor emeritus speculated that Manhattan prosecutors are intentionally putting Manafort in tough conditions in order to prod him to work with them as state officials investigate President Trump.

Manafort is facing white-collar charges, and Dershowitz argued that sending him to the same facility that housed the "Son of Sam" and John Lennon's killer Mark David Chapman is inappropriate: "The tactic of squeezing a potential witness by making his imprisonment unbearably harsh is generally reserved for mafioso, terrorists and other violent criminals who may have evidence against their bosses."

Scott Hechinger, a public defender in Brooklyn, also criticized the decision.

"Rikers Island & Solitary Confinement are both tortures *no one* should be subjected to," Hechinger tweeted Tuesday. "By supporting solitary for Manafort, we support an immoral, barbaric, cruel & unusual practice. Torture w/ long lasting, debilitating mental health consequences. And solitary for one means solitary is available for all."

Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., whose district includes Rikers, blasted the idea of keeping Manafort in solitary, as was reported.

"A prison sentence is not a license for gov torture and human rights violations. That‘s what solitary confinement is," Ocasio Cortez tweeted Wednesday. "Manafort should be released, along with all people being held in solitary."

New York City defense attorney Julie Rendelman, meanwhile, provided some context for why prosecutors might want to bring Manafort to New York.

"It's not unreasonable for the prosecutor and the state judge to want an individual facing a [New York] criminal case to remain local during the process, given the numerous status conferences that occur within the months after an arraignment and before trial," Rendelman told Fox News.

But she said "it is possible to waive a client's appearance for many of these conferences," suggesting Manafort could fight the decision. Another argument is the effect that the conditions could have on Manafort's health, which has declined since he was first incarcerated for his two federal cases -- involving a slew of fraud and other charges that resulted in a roughly seven-year prison sentence.

"Given his age and potential health factors, there is certainly room for a decision to be made that could send him back to Pennsylvania for the immediate future, unless he's needed in New York," Rendelman said.

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, meanwhile, said Manafort would be treated "like any other inmate" at Rikers. The typical treatment of inmates there, however, has resulted in some of the mayor's fellow liberals taking Manafort's side.


Liberal activist Shaun King said Rikers is a "hell hole" that nobody should go to, not even "enemies."

Manafort is currently at a minimum security prison in Pennsylvania, where he is serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence for crimes including conspiracy and tax fraud. The New York state charges, should they result in a conviction, would prevent him from going free in the event of a presidential pardon, which would only apply to federal crimes.