What is Hunter Biden accused of? What penalties can he receive? The keys to the trial of Joe Biden’s son

The three charges for the purchase and possession of a gun are punishable by a maximum of 25 years in prison, but such a high punishment is not usually imposed in a case like this

Hunter Biden
Hunter Biden and his wife, Melissa Cohen Biden, at the first day of trial this Monday in Wilmington (Delaware).Kevin Lamarque (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

On October 12, 2018 Hunter Biden stopped at the StarQuest Shooters & Survival Supply, a firearms store off Highway 202, north of Wilmington, Delaware. Joe Biden’s son decided to buy a Colt Cobra 38SPL revolver. To do this, he filled out an application known as form 4473, with several pages of small print. Question 11.e) asked him to answer whether he was an illegal user or addict of any stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance. Hunter Biden checked the No box. A footnote asked him to certify that his answers were true and warned him that he was prohibited from purchasing a gun if he answered yes to said question and that making a false statement was a crime. Hunter Biden purchased the revolver. The gun ended up 11 days later in a trash can at a Greenville supermarket, about a 10-minute drive from the gun store. More than five years later, Hunter Biden has ended up in the dock, becoming the first son of a United States president to be tried in a criminal case.

The trial, which is being held in Wilmington (Delaware), began on Monday with jury selection. There are 12 people (six men and six women), plus four substitutes (all women), who have at their disposal more than 20 pages of instructions on how they should carry out their task. These instructions explain that their deliberations are secret and that they won’t have to explain their verdict to anyone. The verdict must be unanimous; all 12 must agree or there will be no verdict.

These are the keys to the case:

What is Hunter Biden accused of?

The president’s son is facing three felony counts: lying to a federally licensed gun dealer, making a false claim on the federal firearms application, and possession of an illegally obtained firearm. Prosecutors maintain that he was a drug user and addict when he bought the gun.

Biden is specifically accused of violating the following provisions of Title 18 of the United States Code: section 922(a)(6), which punishes “any person in connection with the acquisition or attempted acquisition of any firearm or ammunition from a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, licensed dealer, or licensed collector, knowingly to make any false or fictitious oral or written statement or to furnish or exhibit any false, fictitious, or misrepresented identification, intended or likely to deceive such importer, manufacturer, dealer, or collector with respect to any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale or other disposition of such firearm or ammunition under the provisions of this chapter.”

The second charge pertains to section 924(a)(1)(A), which punishes anyone who “knowingly makes any false statement or representation with respect to the information required by this chapter to be kept in the records of a person licensed under this chapter or in applying for any license or exemption or relief from disability under the provisions of this chapter.”

The third offense involves section 922(g)(3) that makes it illegal to purchase firearms for anyone “who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance.”

What penalties can he get?

At the time of the indictment, the court made clear in a document the maximum penalties that Hunter Biden faces. Up to 10 years for the first felony, five for the second and another 10 for the third, along with fines of up to $250,000 for each of them and up to three years of supervised release. But these are maximum penalties. For someone with no criminal record, who has undergone rehabilitation and where the illegal purchase and possession of the weapon was not accompanied by any other violent crime, prison sentences are not common.

How does the trial proceed?

After the jury selection, the next step is the opening statements, starting with the prosecutor. The prosecution must present evidence of the crimes of which it accuses Hunter Biden. This evidence can be documents or statements from witnesses, whom the defense can also question. Hunter Biden’s lawyers can present their own evidence and witnesses, if they wish. At the end of their turn, the prosecution will present their conclusions in their final arguments. The judge will then give instructions to the jury, who will retire to deliberate. Their decision needs to be unanimous.

What must the prosecution prove?

The defendant is presumed innocent. The prosecutor needs to prove each and every element of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. To achieve a conviction on the two counts related to the purchase of the gun, prosecutors must convince the jury that Hunter Biden knowingly made a false statement on his gun purchase form and that the lie was relevant to the sale. For the weapons possession charge, they must prove that he knew he was an unlawful user of a controlled substance or that he was a drug addict and still knowingly possessed a firearm.

What evidence will prosecutors provide?

The prosecution will use excerpts from Hunter Biden’s own memoir, Beautiful Things, in which he acknowledges that he was addicted to drugs for four years until March 2019. Prosecutors have also accessed text messages from the defendant sent around that time. “I was sleeping in a car smoking crack,” he said in one of them. The Prosecutor’s Office is considering calling as witnesses Hunter Biden’s ex-wife, Kathleen Buhle, and his brother Beau Biden’s widow, Hallie Biden, with whom Hunter later had a relationship, to testify about his addiction.

What does the defense allege?

Hunter Biden has pleaded not guilty. However, the judge has made two of his lines of defense difficult. She has prevented an expert from testifying about Hunter Biden’s state of denial regarding his addiction when he bought the gun, especially considering that he had undergone an 11-day rehabilitation program. She has also vetoed a version of the form altered by store employees, arguing that this does not change the facts and would introduce confusion. The judge has also rejected the defense’s claim that the accused is suffering political persecution.

What happened to the plea deal with prosecutors?

Hunter Biden initially admitted the illegal purchase and possession of the weapon as part of a plea deal with prosecutors to be sentenced with lesser penalties for two tax crimes that were already regularized and to shelve the gun case. Prosecutors initially were ready to waive pursuing the gun purchase in exchange for him staying away from drugs for two years and giving up having a firearm in the future. It is a common agreement in similar cases in which the accused have undergone rehab and have no criminal record. The agreement, however, was derailed just as it was going to be endorsed. Judge Maryellen Noreika, a Trump appointee, rejected it due to the different interpretation of the agreement between the prosecution and the defense and pressure from Republicans.

U.S. first lady Jill Biden
The first lady of the United States, Jill Biden, arrives at the federal courthouse on the opening day of Hunter Biden's trial.Kevin Lamarque (REUTERS)

Can the president pardon his son?

Yes. The crimes of which his son is accused are federal and the president has a broad capacity to pardon them if he were sentenced to jail. So far, Biden has stayed away from the case, but has shown strong support for Hunter as a father. Biden stayed in Wilmington on Monday to support his son. First Lady Jill Biden accompanied him to the courthouse. In a statement, the president said Monday that he has “unlimited love” for his son. “Jill and I love our son, and we are so proud of the man he is today,” he said.

What other charges is Hunter Biden facing?

Hunter Biden has been charged with nine alleged tax crimes before California courts. Biden’s son has since made his pending payments and the case was going to be closed in accordance with the plea deal that finally derailed.

Do the cases affect the president?

Both the charges for the purchase and possession of the gun and the alleged tax crimes concern only Hunter Biden. Republicans have spent years unsuccessfully trying to find links showing that Joe Biden benefited from his son’s business dealings, commissions and other irregularities. Their harassment of the president through requests and interrogations of supposed witnesses, and the opening of an investigation for a possible impeachment, has reached a dead end after no evidence was found against President Biden. Much of the accusations centered on the testimony of an FBI informant who said that Joe Biden had collected a $5 million commission from Ukraine. It was later proven that it was all a fabrication by a person with ties to Russian intelligence.

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