How Might Judge Merchan Treat Trump? These Defendants Know

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The day after a Manhattan jury found Donald Trump guilty on 34 counts of falsifying business records over a six-figure payoff to a porn star, the former president and newly minted felon railed against the man who will soon be sentencing him.

New York State Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan has been, and continues to be, “totally unfair,” according to Trump.

But Andrew Rossig, a BASE jumper who was busted for parachuting from the top of 1 World Trade Center in 2013, said on Friday that he had a vastly different experience with the 60-year-old jurist.

“As far as Merchan goes, he was more than fair,” Rossig, a carpenter by trade, told The Daily Beast.

Merchan is set to hand down Trump’s punishment on July 11, just four days before the Republican National Convention. According to New York State law, he can give Trump, 77, up to four years in prison on each count, but possesses broad discretion to impose an array of lesser sentences, including community service, home detention, probation, or simply order the disgraced ex-commander-in-chief to pay a fine.

Most legal experts do not believe Trump will actually spend any time behind bars, and data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services shows that the vast majority of people charged with the same crime as Trump, a Class E felony, avoid prison altogether. In 2022, 15 of 48 defendants convicted of falsifying business records were incarcerated. The year prior, just 19 of 71 got sent to prison.

(Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has outpaced his predecessor in terms of bringing felony charges for falsifying business records, filing 166 counts against 34 defendants in his first 15 months on the job, an almost threefold increase.)

Two years after his stunt, Rossig and two others were convicted on a pair of misdemeanor reckless endangerment counts, but were acquitted of felony burglary charges.

“What the three defendants did was selfish and reckless,” Merchan, a former prosecutor, said at sentencing, adding that the jump “sullied the memories” of those 9/11 victims who leapt from the site “not for sport but because they had to.”

Prosecutors asked for 60 days in jail but Merchan called the trio “decent men,” and said incarceration “would not serve the best interests of our community.” Rossig, who said he had been extremely contrite throughout the proceedings, was ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.

The Manhattan DA at the time, Cy Vance, “really wanted to make an example out of us,” Rossig recalled. Unlike Trump, who has continued to rail against Merchan, even targeting his daughter for abuse online until the judge imposed a gag order, which he then violated several times.

Each of the men received slightly different sentences “based on what [Merchan] viewed as our level of compliance at trial,” Rossig went on.

“I, myself, was pretty quiet and just tried to keep my mouth shut and be apologetic,” he said. “But one of my co-defendants was posting things on social media and being kind of an ass, and he got more community service than I did. It seemed to me that [Merchan] was like, if you at least seem apologetic for the crime you did, he would be more lenient. I don’t ever remember saying to myself, ‘This judge is ridiculous and I‘m going to jail for the rest of my life.’ It was more like, ‘Treat him with respect and he’ll be fair.’”

Merchan, according to Rossig, “seemed to let the jury do their thing, and took [the court’s] recommendations on what the penalty should be for what we did.”

“I didn’t feel any bias in there, like he took it personally or anything,” Rossig said. “He wasn’t like, ‘Oh you guys were so reckless and you deserve to be punished for what you did. There was none of that. It was ‘just the facts.’”

At the same time, Merchan is not a pushover when a violent criminal is before him.

In 2012, he handed down a sentence of 25-years-to-life to a 42-year-old Manhattan man convicted of raping and murdering his ex-girlfriend after he claimed he was hexed by a West African “curse.”

For Anna Gristina, the so-called “Soccer Mom Madam” who pleaded guilty in 2012 to one felony count of promoting prostitution—a charge carrying up to seven years in prison—Merchan let her off with time served (four months at Rikers Island) and five years of probation.

“It was the first vacation I’d had in 40 years,” the Scottish-born Gristina told The Daily Beast from her Upstate New York home. “I had no bills, I had three meals a day, I didn’t have to take care of the kids.”

At the same time, Gristina said that the experience left her “emotionally drained and financially drained.” (She was not a fan of Merchan, and is now suing in an attempt to undo her plea bargain.)

Defense attorneys who have argued cases before Merchan say that he is “in command of his courtroom,” that he “won’t be baited, and he won’t be pushed around.” Ron Kuby, who was once the law partner of late firebrand attorney William Kunstler, called Merchan “a serious jurist, smart and even-tempered,” according to NBC News. And defense lawyer Barry Kamins, who previously served as a judge, told the network that Merchan exhibits “excellent temperament, integrity and a solid knowledge of the law.”

One defense lawyer who for several years worked out of the same courthouse as Merchan said he eschewed the limelight and largely kept to himself. He was ”never part of the judge ‘crew,’” the attorney said, asking to remain anonymous to avoid professional conflict. “It was like he never fit in with the other judges.”

Arthur Aidala, a defense attorney who has represented many high-profile clients, including Harvey Weinstein, told The Daily Beast that Merchan “is known as being a tough sentencer but not over the top.”

“He already indicated to Trump during the trial that he does not want to put him in prison. I believe that will be the same at the actual sentencing. The judge should craft some significant form of community service in a way that Trump is obligated to make the city a better place,” Aidala said.

For Rossig, he said the World Trade Center feat that brought him in front of Merchan was just one of some 130 jumps he made from buildings across the five boroughs of New York City, over the course of 15 years.

Amazingly, Rossig has a second connection to Trump aside from both of them having faced Merchan in his courtroom.

“I jumped the Taj [Mahal Casino] in Atlantic City in 2004 or 2005,” Rossig said. “We got caught on the ground. They had called Trump up directly at the time, [and] he said, ‘Let them go, but they have to sign a waiver that they can’t come into any of my buildings again.’”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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