Judge’s Day Takes a Different Turn as Crowd Departs Trump’s Hush-Money Trial

For the last six weeks, the occupant of the chair has been the previous president of the United States.

The weathered leather padding provides a comfortable seat for the former president, who is both the presumptive Republican nominee in the upcoming presidential election.

Leaning back for hours, his eyes narrowed to slits, he listens intently as his enemies testify against him.

A team of lawyers surrounds him, while politicians from Washington, DC, show their allegiance behind him. Rows of journalists sit on hard, weathered wooden benches, eagerly shifting in their seats to get a better view.

On this particular Wednesday, the chair was occupied by a series of apprehensive New Yorkers who had confessed to their wrongdoings. Their purpose for being there was to seek assistance.

The jury in the hush-money trial involving Donald Trump and adult film star Stormy Daniels will not convene on Wednesday. New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, who is currently presiding over what is arguably the highest-profile criminal case in American history, reserves this day for Manhattan’s mental health court.

The experience is truly unique. Journalists and members of the public alike dedicate hours to queue outside the court, eagerly vying for a seat inside the courtroom or in an overflow room, where they can watch the trial unfold on large TV screens. Sadly, countless individuals are inevitably turned away as the demand far exceeds the available space.

During the trial’s off days, a Business Insider reporter was the sole journalist present at the mental health court on two recent Wednesdays. The courtroom, located on the 15th floor, featured linoleum-tiled floors.

For these defendants on a Wednesday, the stakes are just as high. They have been fortunate enough to win the lottery and be given another opportunity to avoid imprisonment. It is undoubtedly a challenging situation for them.

During these sessions, Merchan maintains his usual demeanor. He is energetic and vigilant, always on the lookout for any attempts at evasive responses from the lawyers.

However, Merchan exudes a distinct attitude in various aspects.

Merchan takes on the role of a strict headmaster in Trump’s trial, upholding high standards and ensuring that all the lawyers and witnesses stay on track. This week, after a month of testimony, the jurors will commence their deliberations.

Merchan has held Trump in contempt 10 times for violating his gag order and has threatened him with jail time. He has remained vigilant, despite the former president’s lawyers making multiple attempts to delay the trial, and succeeding once.

In his mental health court, Merchan, an experienced judge in felony criminal trials since 2009, takes on a different role. He embodies a caring and supportive figure, akin to a beloved uncle. His genuine desire for everyone’s success is evident as he enthusiastically cheers on defendants when they share positive updates. Even his reprimands are delivered with a gentle touch.

He encourages defendants who provide updates demonstrating that their lives are on track, saying, “Keep it up.”

“You’ve definitely made a remarkable turnaround since the last time I saw you, and I’m genuinely delighted to witness your progress,” he recently expressed to one defendant. This came as their lawyer shared that their client has been steadily improving after initially facing difficulties at the start of the program.

Unfortunately, not everyone has such positive news to share.

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During two recent sessions, the weather outside was warm, but Merchan made sure to blast the air conditioning in the courtroom, which Trump mockingly refers to as “the icebox,” to keep it chilly.

One day, a court employee decided to wear a long black parka that extended past her knees. Surprisingly, the coats on the courtroom’s coat rack were left undisturbed.

One of the defendants, who was residing in a treatment facility, was discovered with a contraband nicotine vape pen hidden under her pillow. She expressed her inability to obtain her regular prescription medications due to a technical problem faced by her therapist. Merchan, while appearing disappointed, chose to maintain a sympathetic attitude instead of adopting a skeptical approach, which is not always the case with other judges.

The woman confided in him about her ongoing battle with depression. She expressed her difficulty in finding the motivation to get out of bed, attend group therapy sessions, or engage in any activities. The thought of the future filled her with overwhelming anxiety.

“I must be honest, Your Honor,” she openly admitted. “I’m not doing very well.”

Merchan, sitting atop the bench, shared his own frustrations regarding the unfairness of the world. He reassured her, emphasizing that she had no need to apologize for anything. The overwhelming sense of pressure she was experiencing, he explained, stemmed from the responsibility she would assume upon completing the program and embarking on her own life journey.

He assured, “The future is imminent, and you will be fully prepared for it.”

However, he remained resolute, emphasizing the addictive properties of nicotine and the potential for her to fall back into old habits.

He expressed his disapproval, stating, “You should refrain from doing that,” and emphasized the importance of moving forward.

Her lawyer expressed confidence, stating, “She possesses great strength and is fully capable of overcoming this challenge.”

Merchan responded with a beaming smile, expressing agreement, before proceeding to the next defendant.

Getting accepted is just the start

If individuals plead guilty to felonies, they have the option to choose the Manhattan mental health court as a potential route to take.

Only a few individuals are able to seize the opportunity and make the most of it.

Since its establishment in 2011, Merchan has been the exclusive presiding judge of the mental health court in Manhattan.

In addition to his role as the sole judge presiding over a specialized court in Manhattan that serves veterans and typically handles fewer cases, Judge Smith also oversees other specialized courts that address substance abuse and human trafficking. Furthermore, the borough offers an extensive Alternatives to Incarceration program, which serves as a comprehensive approach to criminal justice and is considered the largest diversion program available.

According to Eliza Orlins, a New York City public defender with experience representing defendants in mental health court, no one has ever emerged from prison in a better state than when they entered. Orlins believes that instead of solely punishing individuals, it is crucial to find ways to assist and support them, as it benefits everyone involved.

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According to a spokesperson from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the mental health court currently has 56 ongoing cases at various stages. While this number may seem small compared to the thousands of felony cases the office handles annually, it is significant for those involved. In order to be considered for the mental health court program, defendants must demonstrate a history of mental illness and may need to discuss their past traumas with the district attorney’s office. If approved, a mental health court treatment plan can be incorporated into their plea agreement, offering alternative consequences for any failures. Lastly, once the details are finalized, the defendant must accept the plea.

“It is incredibly challenging and burdensome to even reach the point of being accepted into mental health court,” Orlins expressed. “However, this is just the beginning of the journey.”

For those who are approved to enter the program, Merchan refers defendants to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist then creates a personalized plan to tackle mental health concerns and possible substance abuse problems. In many cases, this plan includes residing in a mental healthcare treatment facility.

The defendants check in every few weeks, and if they successfully complete the program to the satisfaction of Merchan, the indictment is dismissed.

If they commit new infractions or fail to successfully complete the program, they may face the recommended sentence in their plea agreement, which could result in imprisonment in a state prison.

Between 2014 and 2021, the Manhattan mental health court received referrals for 300 individuals, as stated in a report by the district attorney’s office. Out of these, 190 individuals were accepted into the program. Over the course of 12 to 24 months, 100 participants successfully completed the program and graduated.

Recovering from mental health episodes can be incredibly challenging, as Orlins explained. It is not something that everyone is able to accomplish easily.

“In theory, they may sound promising. And if individuals achieve success, then that’s certainly wonderful. However, the reality is that it can be quite challenging,” she expressed.

Merchan, when asked for an interview for this story, informed Business Insider that he was unable to spare any time due to the ongoing Trump trial. However, in a previous interview with the Associated Press conducted before the trial commenced, he shared that the mental health court allowed him to view people from a different perspective compared to his experience presiding over regular criminal cases.

‘If you are ever struggling and having a hard time, just speak up’

Merchan handles numerous cases every morning, devoting just a few minutes to each defendant. The proceedings have a distinct appearance compared to a typical criminal case.

Case managers play a crucial role in the courtroom, standing at the lectern where lawyers usually question witnesses. They provide valuable updates on the progress of each defendant in their mental health treatment program. This vital information aids both the prosecutors and defense attorneys in understanding the current state of the individuals they are representing.

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Each defendant has a unique story. Merchan listens intently, maintaining direct eye contact and giving his undivided attention. When their lawyers present a request, he ponders it with his hand covering his mouth, a gesture he often resorts to during the Trump trial, signifying his contemplation on how to make a ruling.

On a recent Wednesday, Merchan accepted a man’s plea and welcomed him into the mental health court.

“You have entered the Manhattan Mental Health Court,” he greeted. “Welcome.”

“If you ever find yourself in a difficult situation and need support, don’t hesitate to reach out,” the judge kindly advised.

One of the defendants appeared to be on the path to imprisonment.

According to his lawyer, he had “absconded” after informing his chaperone, “Sorry man, I need to see my wife” and discreetly slipping away. His whereabouts remained unknown as nobody could locate him.

According to his lawyer, there is no information available about him having a wife.

The case manager appeared to get emotional as she discussed the situation. The defendant’s treatment facility was overwhelmed with a long waiting list of individuals seeking admission. This meant that even if he were to return, he would not be able to re-enter the facility. Failing the mental health court program in such a drastic manner could lead to a sentencing hearing as the next course of action.

Merchan willingly became a target for law enforcement.

He announced with a serious tone, “A bench warrant has been issued.”

One woman who appeared before the judge had a more positive update. Her lawyer shared that she dedicates an hour every day to reading and has recently subscribed to the Wall Street Journal’s weekend section. She has also made a new friend named Iris at her local library, who assists her in interpreting sports statistics.

Merchan felt a surge of encouragement as he envisioned a promising future ahead.

“I would like to postpone the case for graduation,” he stated, as the graduation ceremony was scheduled for June 26. This event would take place well after Trump’s departure, and he would only potentially return for his sentencing.”

As the day was coming to a close, the woman’s case remained the final one on the docket. However, before everyone could pack up and leave, there was one more important matter that needed to be addressed.

A tall, elderly lawyer with a lanky frame stepped forward to address the court. He shared the story of his client, who had successfully completed the program two years ago and had gone on to pursue a business degree. Now on the verge of graduating, the client was concerned that the case, despite being dismissed, would adversely affect his job search and employment prospects.

Is it possible for the judge to seal the case?

Merchan stated that the prosecutors did not object and added that the case was sealed.

Merchan smiled warmly as he said, “Please convey my greetings and best wishes to him.”

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