14 Apr 2024

'No easy task' - The hunt for an impartial Trump jury in Manhattan

8:45 am on 14 April 2024

By Madeline Halpert, BBC News, New York

Manhattan skyline

Jurors for Donald Trump's first criminal trial will be drawn from New York's Manhattan and neighbouring Roosevelt Island and the jury process could last well over a week. Photo: 123RF

On Monday (US time), hundreds of New Yorkers from across the island of Manhattan will find themselves facing a historic prospect: sitting on the jury of the first criminal trial of a former president.

Donald Trump is accused of falsifying his business records to disguise a hush money payment made shortly before the 2016 election to an adult film star with whom he allegedly had an affair.

It will be up to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and Trump's legal team to weed through the masses of New Yorkers to find 12 people capable of setting aside their feelings about one of the most polarising US politicians, to give him a fair trial.

Trump's lawyers have already complained that the city's Manhattan borough, comprised predominately of Democrats, will not allow for an impartial jury.

And experts agree it will prove challenging.

"There's nobody in the country who doesn't have an opinion one way or another," former Manhattan prosecutor Jeremy Saland says.

"But those in New York have been exposed to Donald Trump and his father and children for literally generations, from every tabloid to the internet to Home Alone."

"A jury should be fair no matter what, listen to the evidence and hold prosecutors to the burden," he says.

"So no easy task."

US President Donald Trump and actress Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels.

US President Donald Trump and actress Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels. Photo: AFP

42 questions to hundreds of people

The jury process will involve several stages that could last well over a week, former Brooklyn and Manhattan prosecutors told the BBC.

Because of the high-profile nature of the trial, as many as 500 people from New York's Manhattan and neighbouring Roosevelt Island could be chosen as prospective jurors.

From this group, the defence and the prosecution - overseen by Justice Juan Merchan - will select 12 people and several alternates to be seated.

Those jurors will be anonymous to the public, but Trump's team and prosecutors will know their identities.

The process will begin with dismissing jurors who are unable to participate in the six-week trial because of hardships such as childcare obligations and travel restrictions, says Julie Rendelman, a former Brooklyn prosecutor.

Experts say the second stage could pose the biggest challenge: removing those who will not be impartial.

"Everyone, anyone, no matter who you are, no matter whether you wear blue or red goggles, needs to give the former president the same rights that any of us do, which is that he's innocent until proven guilty," says Saland, the former Manhattan prosecutor.

To start weeding out those who are biased, prosecutors and the defence team will analyse questionnaires filled out by the prospective jurors.

The jurors will be asked questions including which news outlets they read and what podcasts they listen to; whether they follow Trump on social media and if they have ever attended a rally for the former president.

They will also be asked if they support or consider themselves a part of any right or left-wing radical groups, specifically:

  • The QAnon movement: an online movement based around a sprawling conspiracy theory that alleges elites in politics, the media and business have created a child trafficking network
  • Proud Boys: an all-male fraternity founded in 2016, Proud Boys regularly participated in violent street protests and pro-Trump events
  • Oath Keepers: a militia made up of current and former military members, law enforcement officials and other first responders
  • Three Percenters: another anti-government, pro-gun rights movement, the Three Percenters were co-founded by an Oath Keepers member
  • Boogaloo Boys: a nebulous anti-government movement that made waves during anti-lockdown and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020
  • Antifa: short for "anti-fascist", this loose confederation of left-wing activists swelled in numbers and activity after Trump was elected

Merchan has stressed that jurors will not be dismissed based on political affiliation alone. "The issue is if the juror can be impartial and can reach a verdict consistent with the law," he said in February.

But Trump's lawyers have already sparred with the defence about what exactly this means.

Lawyers for the DA's Office previously argued anyone who believed President Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 presidential election should be disqualified from serving on the jury, a question Trump's team objected to.

Ultimately, the query was not included in the 42 questions potential jurors must answer. Instead, jurors will be asked a host of other questions such as those above.

They will also be asked if they have ever served on a jury before, and if so, if they reached a verdict.

People who have served on a hung jury - a case where a jury could not reach a verdict - are less likely to be picked because "the concern is they're the ones who hung it up", says former Manhattan prosecutor Diana Florence.

Potential jurors also must indicate if they or close family and friends have ever been a victim of a crime, and if so, which one. This allows both sides to judge whether someone might be prejudiced in Trump's falsification of business records case because of previous experiences.

Some of the questions are even more personal, asking jurors what their children do for a living and if they take any medication that would prevent them from being able to concentrate during the trial.

'Vetting' jurors

Prosecutors and Trump's legal team will be able to challenge those that they don't want to be included on the jury.

Each side has 10 "peremptory" challenges, jurors they can dismiss for no particular reason, said Florence.

Both Trump and the DA's Office have an unlimited number of "for cause" challenges, meaning they need a valid reason to dismiss those jurors.

This time will prove pivotal for both sides to remove people who will not be objective about the trial, including those intentionally trying to make their way onto the case by misrepresenting their views on Trump, Saland says.

"It's critical that the prosecutors and the defence vet those jurors and get rid of those that they think are not going to do their job," he adds.

To help, lawyers for the defence and prosecution will likely hire experts to look through jurors' social media posts, which can provide a "treasure trove of information as to their potential views and biases", Rendelman said.

Both sides will also be looking for those who have not yet made up their mind about the case - a significant challenge for a trial that has received such intense media coverage.

But Trump's case won't be the first high-profile trial for prosecutors and defence teams looking for an impartial pool of New Yorkers, experts noted.

It took almost two weeks to narrow down jurors for disgraced Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein's New York sexual assault trial in 2020.

It could take just as much time - if not more - to find people willing to grant Trump a fair trial, Rendelman says.

"We are human, and so our biases creep in, even when we don't want them to," she adds.

"It's doable, but it's going to be difficult."

- This story was first published by BBC

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