Thursday, April 11, 2024

What might a jury look like for Trump's up coming New York criminal trial

 On April 15, several hundred New Yorkers will file into a Manhattan courtroom to be scrutinized by prosecutors and defense attorneys, probed and prodded for signs that they could sway — or stymie — the first criminal trial of a former American president.

Lawyers representing the State of New York and Donald J. Trump will help select the 12 people who will decide the former president’s fate, according to The New York Times.

The lawyers will try to divine unspoken political biases, opinions about law enforcement and other hidden agendas. The potential jurors, who could face public anger and threats if they are chosen, will be asked about their education, occupations, families and news sources.

The questions will drill slowly deeper: Potential jurors, all from one of the state’s most liberal counties, will be asked to reveal whether they volunteered for or against Mr. Trump. Perhaps most critically, they will be asked whether their feelings would interfere with their ability to be fair.

Seating the members of the jury and several alternates could take two weeks or more, and the choices may be as pivotal as any evidence presented in court.

“It’s the most important part,” said Arthur Aidala, a defense attorney whose firm has had many high-profile clients, including Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer. “And the hardest part too.”

Mr. Trump faces several trials, but other cases are mired in delays. The 12 jurors in Manhattan who will decide whether he falsified business records to hide an affair with a porn star will bear unblinking scrutiny.

For conservatives, the trial is a chance to expose what they see as an abuse of prosecutorial power and a plot led by Democrats to derail Mr. Trump. For liberals, it could be the only test of the judicial system’s power over the former president before the election this fall.

The stakes of jury selection are particularly high for Mr. Trump’s team, which is aware of the former president’s poor standing among many in New York County — Manhattan, as most people know it — which overwhelmingly voted for President Biden in 2020.

Mr. Trump’s legal team sees the case as winnable, although some believe a full acquittal is less likely than the prospect of finding jurors willing to cause a mistrial by holding out against a unanimous guilty verdict, according to two people with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Two lawsuits. E. Jean Carroll, a writer who says Donald Trump raped her in the mid 1990s, filed two separate lawsuits against the former president. Here’s what to know:

Who is E. Jean Carroll and what does she claim? Carroll is a journalist and onetime advice columnist for Elle magazine. She wrote about the alleged assault in a 2019 memoir, claiming that Trump had attacked her in the dressing room of a department store. The account was the most serious of several sexual misconduct allegations women have made against Trump, all of which he has denied.

How did Trump respond to her claims? After Carroll’s account appeared as an excerpt of her book in New York magazine, Trump emphatically denied her accusations, saying that she was “totally lying,” that the assault had never occurred and that he could not have raped her because she was not his “type.”

On what grounds did Carroll sue Trump for rape? In 2022, New York passed a law giving adult sexual assault victims a one-time opportunity to file civil cases, even if the statute of limitations has long expired. Carroll subsequently filed a lawsuit, accusing Trump of rape and seeking damages. On May 9, a jury found Trump liable for the sexual abuse and defamation of Carroll and awarded her $5 million in damages.

Why did she also sue him for defamation? In 2019, Carroll filed a defamation lawsuit against Trump in New York for making disparaging comments and branding her a liar after the publication of her memoir. Carroll  sought additional damages in response to Trump’s insults after she won her rape lawsuit. The trial in that case ended on Jan. 26 with a Manhattan jury ordering Trump to pay $83.3 million to Carroll.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers want a jury that includes younger Black men and white working-class men, particularly public employees like police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers. Those who have had bad experiences with the legal system will also be prized by the defense, which has cast the case as politically motivated.

Polls have shown that voters who haven’t graduated from college tend to favor Republicans. So prosecutors, conversely, will probably be looking for more educated voters from Democratic neighborhoods, fishing for those who consume news from sources like MSNBC, known for its outspoken liberal hosts, and who are fond of late-night comedians like Stephen Colbert, who hosted a presidential panel with Mr. Biden on March 28.

Each potential juror will answer a uniform set of questions, and lawyers can ask follow-ups. Some queries may be designed to uncover biases against — or allegiances to — Mr. Trump, such as whether jurors have any feelings or opinions about how he is being treated in this case, or whether they believe a former president can be criminally charged in state court.

Each side will be able to remove a limited number of jurors without explanation, a so-called peremptory challenge. They can also ask for jurors to be removed “for cause” by providing specific reasons they believe a juror cannot be fair and impartial.

Those disqualifications are critical.

“It’s always most important to know who your worst jurors are going to be,” said Renato Stabile, an attorney who does jury consulting. “It’s jury deselection, not jury selection. Because you can only control who you are getting rid of.”

Unlike most trials, where many potential jurors are loath to serve, some may be actively trying to get seated in this case. Michael Farkas, a defense attorney, said that those who seem to be angling for the jury “are the people who are most likely to have a partisan agenda.”

Some may not be completely forthcoming.

“Getting 12 jurors you think you actually know is difficult enough in a regular case,” said Mr. Farkas. “In a case like this, both parties can pretty much rest assured that they are going to have people on the jury that aren’t being completely honest about how they feel.”

Mr. Aidala was blunter about potential jurors.

“They lie,” he said, adding, “People want to be on that jury because they think they’re going to write a book or they’re going to be on ‘20/20’ or ‘48 Hours’ or one of those things.”

Prosecutors are aware of the perils of trying famous defendants, and Mr. Trump is globally famous.

“People know who he is,” said Joshua Steinglass, a senior trial counsel with Mr. Bragg’s office, at a Feb. 15 hearing on jury selection. “They’re going to have an opinion one way or the other. They can like him or dislike him. They can still be fair jurors so long as that is not going to affect their abilities to fairly judge the evidence.”

In Justice Juan M. Merchan’s decision issued last week expanding a gag order on Mr. Trump, he suggested that the former president’s fame could influence deliberations.

“The conventional ‘David vs. Goliath’ roles are no longer in play as demonstrated by the singular power defendant’s words have on countless others,” the justice wrote.

Justice Merchan could wield significant influence. In courtrooms, jurors often look to judges for guidance. By repeatedly attacking Justice Merchan, Mr. Trump could risk punishment, and jurors could find themselves sympathetic to the judge trying to contain him.

The case itself is relatively straightforward: Mr. Trump faces nearly three dozen felony counts of falsifying business records related to a hush-money payment made to Stormy Daniels, a porn actress, to buy her silence in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign.

At first blush, Mr. Trump’s jury pool appears to be unfriendly: 70 percent of Manhattan’s 1.1 million registered voters are Democrats. Many know the defendant well, since he once called New York his home and made his name in its tabloid newspapers. Juries and judges in Manhattan have already found Mr. Trump liable for committing sexual abusedefaming his accuser and, most recently, for wildly inflating his net worth to obtain better loan terms.

Valerie Hans, a professor of law at Cornell University who has studied jury behavior, said that pretrial publicity typically favored prosecutors, but that dynamic could be altered by Mr. Trump’s divisive behavior.

“Trump has not ceded the pretrial publicity to the prosecution in this case at all,” said Ms. Hans, noting that Mr. Trump had repeatedly referred to case as a “witch hunt,” a view that his supporters echo.

“It can help shape how people look at the evidence that’s presented at trial from the very start,” she said, adding, “People are more likely to agree with things they have heard many times before.”

Mr. Trump seems well aware of the public relations battle he is waging in his hometown. The presumptive Republican nominee, who faces three other indictments, has repeatedly called for a crackdown on crime. He recently attended the wake of a slain New York City police officer, where he said that the country needed to “get back to law and order.”

He has attacked Justice Merchan again and again and said the justice system is rigged against him.

The judge has moved to defend the citizens who may decide the former president’s fate. New York State does not allow juries to operate in full anonymity, but in early March Justice Merchan ordered prospective jurors’ identities to be shielded from the public, while effectively barring Mr. Trump from exposing them. The former president will not have access even to their addresses.

Lawyers for both sides, however, will know the jurors’ names. They will scour potential jurors’ social media accounts as well as their voter registration and voting histories, which will show whether they voted but not for whom.

Earlier this year, the federal jurors who found Mr. Trump liable for defaming the writer E. Jean Carroll and ordered him to pay her $83.3 million were completely anonymous. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan encouraged them to stay that way.

“My advice to you is that you never disclose that you were on this jury,” Judge Kaplan told them at the end of the trial. “And I won’t say anything more about it.”

Jurors in the criminal trial will also be subject to an intense media spotlight, with scores of reporters packing the courtroom and a constant barrage of commentary from social media and traditional news outlets.

And, of course, they will have to reckon with Mr. Trump, who will sit in the court for weeks just feet away from them. In the defamation trial, he was fixated on the jurors from the moment they walked into the courtroom. He pivoted to study them as they answered biographical questions and frequently talked to his lawyers.

But his participation may have been a double-edged sword. For prospective jurors, it provided their first glimpse of Mr. Trump’s pique at being a defendant.

Judge Kaplan read a summary of the case to them, including the established finding that Mr. Trump had sexually assaulted Ms. Carroll. Later, Judge Kaplan asked the prospective jurors whether any believed that the court system was treating the former president unfairly.

Mr. Trump raised his hand.

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