The defense team of spying suspect Maria Butina walked into the courtroom Monday riding high on a concession from prosecutors that they misunderstood her text message jokes about sex. Less than an hour later, however, the defense lawyers left the hearing under a gag order and with the 29-year-old Russian heading back to a Virginia jail.
Butina has pleaded not guilty to two criminal charges, of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the US. She is accused of working for Russian politician Alexander Torshin to infiltrate Republican politics and, specifically, the National Prayer Breakfast and the National Rifle Association so she could advance Russia’s interests. She’s been in jail since her arrest in July. Torshin is not charged. No trial date is set.
Federal Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered Monday that Butina would stay in jail until her trial because she is a flight risk.
“I cannot envision a scenario where it’s not possible,” Chutkan said, for Butina to walk out of jail, get in a car with diplomatic plates and take a flight out of the country if she were to be released before her trial. “There’s a very real risk of flight.”
The hearing failed to offer any boost to Butina, even with the Justice Department’s admission of error over the weekend.
Before the lawyers met with Chutkan on Monday — their first hearing since late July — Robert Driscoll, Butina’s attorney, had viciously attacked prosecutors’ early accusation that Butina had exchanged sex for political influence in her quest to create a back channel to Republican Party leaders. Prosecutors admitted in a court filing this weekend that they had read her text messages in error.
Chutkan agreed the discussions of sex were clearly jokes.
“Those allegations are notorious, have damaged her reputation” and embarrassed Butina, Chutkan said to the prosecutors.
But then the judge took the defense team to task for speaking publicly about the case outside the courtroom and using colorful language in court filings. Chutkan said the defense team’s word choices, like calling the case “frankly shocking,” were intended as much for public readers as they were for the judge.
“I find in this case that you have overstepped. I do find that your comments have crossed the line,” Chutkan told Driscoll. The defense team was “trying the case in the media,” she said.
The judge also reprimanded the defense for bringing to her chambers on Monday morning videos of Butina that showed her mother and father wishing her US boyfriend Paul Erickson a happy birthday and lip-syncing a song from “Beauty and the Beast” with him. “I’m not sure what on earth their relevance is to Miss Butina’s risk of flight,” Chutkan said. The defense attorney countered that they showed she had a genuine relationship with the Republican political operative from South Dakota.
Chutkan placed a gag order on the case going forward, admonishing her defense attorney for speaking outside the court in a way that could prejudice a DC jury.
Following her arrest, Driscoll repeatedly told national news outlets that his client Butina is merely a foreign student in America, playing up her image of an outdoors-loving young woman.
Recently, Driscoll lamented the conditions of Butina’s incarceration. She’s kept isolated in a small cell for 22 hours a day and allowed out only to shower and call her parents twice each day, at 1 a.m. ET and 11 a.m. ET, the defense team wrote in a recent filing.
Butina had requested to participate in yoga, meditation and creative writing classes that the prison offers, Driscoll said separately. But she has been unable to do so because of her classification as a high-profile inmate rather than a member of the general prison population, Driscoll said.
While the defense lawyer maintains that she never worked for the Russian government, the case has caught the Kremlin’s attention.
Representatives from the Russian consulate in Washington have attended Butina’s hearings. And in a filing this weekend, prosecutors said her case prompted notes and conversation between the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US State Department.
A website collecting donations for her legal expenses popped up at mariabutinafund.com after her arrest, and the Kremlin’s Twitter account started using a hashtag #FreeMariaButina.
Driscoll declined to stop to speak with reporters and camera crews as he left the court house Monday.
Butina’s next court hearing will be on November 13.