Blockbuster Greitens Trial Is No Slam Dunk For Prosecution

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Hours after Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens gave his state of the state speech on January 10, a political lightning bolt struck the Capitol in Jefferson City. KMOV broke the news that Greitens, a Republican, had engaged in an extramarital affair with his former hairdresser before he was elected, and allegedly tried to ensure her silence by tying her up in his basement and taking a semi-nude photo of her without permission.

TPM has been covering the scandal ever since, and was the first outlet to report that the woman said Greitens slapped her. (She later said in sworn testimony that the slapping had occurred on multiple occasions.) Greitens has since been charged with a felony related to the blackmail incident and another felony in an unrelated campaign finance matter. A special Missouri House committee is determining whether to begin impeachment hearings.

TPM will be in the courtroom next week for the governor’s felony trial in the blackmail case. Here’s everything you need to know about what to expect.

Who: Greitens is a former Rhodes scholar and Navy SEAL who campaigned in 2016 as an anti-establishment Trump ally set on rooting out corruption in state politics. Greitens’ national ambitions were apparent much earlier. Long before he ran for governor, he’d registered domains like EricGreitensForPresident.com. That combination of naked aspiration and a willingness to go after his own party quickly won him enemies in the state legislature, as did his reliance on the dark money contributions he had railed against as a candidate.

What: The incident in question occurred on March 21, 2015. Greitens is accused of inviting the woman into the basement of his St. Louis home, tying her up to a piece of exercise equipment, blindfolding her, pulling her clothes partially off, and taking a photograph of her. The woman claims she saw a flash through the blindfold and that Greitens warned that photos of her would appear “everywhere” if she spoke about their relationship. (In her testimony to investigators, the woman also said that Greitens then pressured her to perform oral sex as she cried on the floor. That claim is not part of the case.)

The allegations came to light because her then-husband secretly recorded hours of the couple’s conversations soon after the incident, in which the woman confessed to her relationship with Greitens and made the blackmail claims. Her now ex-husband provided those tapes to the press in January.

Greitens, who is married with two young children, admitted to the affair but denied allegations of blackmail. He has called the subsequent investigation by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, a Democrat, a “political witch hunt.”

The charge: On Feb. 22, Greitens was indicted by a grand jury convened by Gardner, and brought into custody to have a mugshot taken. He was charged with one felony count of invasion of privacy for violating Missouri State Statute 565.252, which forbids taking a nude photograph of an individual who has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” and transmitting it “in a manner that allows access to that image via computer.” The penalty is up to four years in prison.

Greitens pleaded not guilty.

Where: The trial will take place at Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis and will be overseen by St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Rex Burlison. The case is expected to attract so much media attention that the court is instituting a lottery system to allow only 24 reporters to enter the courtroom each day. The rest of the press will be seated in an overflow room equipped with a closed-circuit audio and video feed.

When: The trial begins on Monday, May 14 and is expected to last three to five days. The tight timeline is due to both the focused nature of the charge and concerns about disrupting the governor’s schedule.

Arguments for the prosecution: The prosecution’s case rests largely on the woman’s account and corroborating testimony. Both the woman’s friend, who she told about the incident at the time, and her ex-husband will take the stand.

The prosecution has argued that the woman had no incentive or interest in bringing this story to light and her account has remained consistent throughout multiple depositions, interviews, and testimony before both the ground jury and the Missouri House committee.

The prosecution does not have the photo in question or witnesses who have seen it. The circumstantial evidence of the photo’s existence comes from the woman’s description of seeing a flash, hearing an iPhone shutter click, and promises she says Greitens later made to delete the image. They will argue that Greitens’ intent to transmit the image to a computer, which is required by the invasion of privacy statute in question, is satisfied by his use of a smartphone. An iPhone is itself a form of computer and any image taken on it is sent to cloud storage by default, prosecutors noted in court filings.

Arguments for the defense: The core argument for the defense is that the photo at the heart of the charge was never taken. Greitens’ attorneys will argue that he could therefore never intend to transmit the photo to another device.

Since the story first broke, the defense has tried to paint the woman as an unreliable narrator whose sexual liaisons with the governor were consensual. They want to include her sexual history and psychiatric history as evidence at the trial, arguing that those matters are “a very relevant issue to her credibility.

Judge Burlison ruled that the woman and her ex-husband, whose names have not yet surfaced in court documents or in the media due to her requests for privacy, can be identified by name during the trial.

The defense has also highlighted missteps by Gardner’s team to frame the entire investigation as a sloppy political witch hunt. William Tisaby, a private investigator hired by Gardner who took the woman’s initial deposition, is accused of putting “words in the mouth” of witnesses and lying about aspects of his investigation, including whether he took notes during his first interview with the witness. In April, Burlison sanctioned Gardner’s team for failing to promptly turn over to the defense pertinent evidence including a videotaped deposition of the woman and notes Tisaby took while interviewing her friend.

Greitens’ team will also submit evidence about a $120,000 payment to Al Watkins, the lawyer of the woman’s ex-husband. At least $50,000 of that money came from Missouri Times publisher Scott Faughn, who the defense has called a “highly motivated political individual.”

Burlison ruled that the motivations and possible bias of all parties involved in the case are relevant information.

What the trial won’t address: Greitens faces a second felony charge that will not be addressed at the mid-May trial. In late April, he was charged with computer tampering for allegedly illegally obtaining a donor list from a veterans’ charity he founded and using it to raise funds for his gubernatorial campaign. That case was also brought by Gardner’s office, based on a referral from Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley.

Greitens allegedly directed his former aides to obtain the list from the Mission Continues and used it for campaign fundraising without listing it as an in-kind contribution. His former aide, Danny Laub, said he was tricked into taking the fall for acquiring the list during a state ethics investigation. The House committee probing Greitens’ alleged misdeeds recently released a report based on testimony provided to the AG’s office that seemed to endorse Laub’s version of events.

Greitens has denied any wrongdoing in the matter.

Meanwhile, in the legislature: The Missouri legislature called a special session for the first time in state history in order to consider the results of the House committee investigation. The 30-day session begins on the evening of May 18 but legislative aides told TPM no action is expected to be taken next week. Instead, it is meant to buy the committee more time to complete their investigation and make a recommendation, which could include impeachment.

Even if they take that route, Missouri’s convoluted rules on impeachment proceedings mean that the process could stretch out for months. Greitens has adamantly refused to step down in the face of intense political pressure.

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