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More than 500 New Yorkers to be considered as jurors in Trump's "hush money" trial

Several hundred Manhattan residents were recently sent notices to appear at the borough's criminal court on April 15. Whether they know it or not, they're under consideration to be jurors in perhaps the most high-profile criminal trial in U.S. history.

Lawyers for former President Donald Trump and Manhattan prosecutors are poised to scrutinize more than 500 potential jurors when his trial gets underway Monday, according to two sources, a staggering number that reflects the magnitude of the case itself. 

The attorneys will review their responses to lengthy questionnaires before interviewing many of them individually in court, with the goal of reaching consensus on who should be selected. It's an arduous process that's designed to ferret out prospective jurors who can't put aside their biases, and it could take days or even weeks.

Ultimately, the group will be whittled down to 12 jurors and a few alternates. They'll be tasked with deciding whether the former president illegally falsified business records after his attorney paid "hush money" to an adult film star days before the 2016 election. He faces 34 felony counts and has pleaded not guilty.

Even in a city that has seen many celebrity trials, this one stands out, said former Manhattan prosecutor Duncan Levin.

"This particular person may be the most famous defendant who has ever lived," said Levin, now a private attorney who previously represented the daughter-in-law of Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's longtime chief financial officer.

The jury selection process

Judge Juan Merchan's courtroom at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on March 12, 2024.
Judge Juan Merchan's courtroom at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on March 12, 2024. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Levin and others said the goal won't be to eliminate anyone who is a Democrat or Republican, but instead to find a group of people who haven't already made up their mind about this case, and who can be trusted to render a verdict based on the evidence. 

Trump's attorneys have argued that Manhattan's status as a Democratic stronghold makes it impossible for him to get a fair trial and have suggested a change of venue. But the island is no stranger to finding jurors in cases involving famous, unpopular defendants. It took nearly two weeks to seat jurors for Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's rape and sexual assault trial in 2020.

"At least with Trump, there may be like 20% of the people who actually voted for him. With Harvey, 100% of the people were against him," said Arthur Aidala, who represented Weinstein in the case.

The jury selection process, known as voir dire, "is not a perfect vehicle to uncover juror biases," according to Cornell Law School professor Valerie Hans, one of the nation's leading scholars on the jury system.

She said the seemingly unparalleled amount of media coverage and public attention that Trump's case has received could emerge as a potential issue in jury selection.

"There is substantial research indicating that it can bias jurors in a couple of ways: it can shape how jurors interpret evidence in the case, and it can increase the weight and influence of statements made during deliberation that are consistent with the pretrial publicity," Hans said.

Trump's lawyers have complained in pretrial hearings and filings that media coverage may have impacted potential jurors' understanding of the case. But Hans, and prosecutors in their own filings, said Trump has actively cultivated that attention.

"In most criminal cases, pretrial publicity is predominantly based on news coverage of police activity or prosecution statements, so the effect in typical cases is biasing against the defendant," Hans said. "However, in the Trump 'hush money' case, he and his supporters have argued publicly, repeatedly and loudly that the criminal litigation against him is a political witch hunt."

Hans said that dynamic leads her to believe the impact of the outsized media attention will be "less pro-prosecution than is usually the case."

At a Feb. 15 hearing, a prosecutor indicated the questions potential jurors will be asked include particularly pointed ones tied to claims Trump has made since losing the 2020 election.

Trump's lawyers protested one question in particular: "Do you believe the 2020 election was stolen?" 

Joshua Steinglass from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office defended the question, saying it was designed to glean if a person has "an unwillingness to follow the facts and kind of just blindly" follow what Trump says.

In a case with this much pretrial publicity, the usual challenge of finding enough people willing or able to sit through the trial is thrown out the window, according to Pace University Law School Professor Bennett Gershman. Instead of being on the lookout for fake excuses, he said, lawyers on the case will be worried about so-called "stealth jurors."

"There may be people who want to be on this jury, who may see it as a historic moment in American history, and they want to be there. They may be predisposed one way or the other, but don't want to say it," said Gershman, a former New York prosecutor.

That's why lawyers will employ specialists to pour through the online public lives of potential jurors as they sit in the courtroom. Experts said it's a crucially important part of the jury selection process.

"What you do now with these jurors is you have a jury consultant, and they're sitting there with a laptop and they go through all the social media stuff, they Google them and they see who the hell they are," said Aidala, whose firm also represents former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 2020 election-related case in Georgia.

Aidala and other experts said the main thing consultants will be looking for is whether prospective jurors have already said publicly if they have an opinion about whether Trump is guilty in the case.

The Trump gag order

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on April 2, 2024, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on April 2, 2024, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Researching potential jurors is a standard practice in high-profile cases, but Trump is at risk of being barred from learning their identities. On March 26, Judge Juan Merchan issued a gag order restricting what Trump and others could say about potential witnesses, court personnel and district attorney staff, as well as their families. In the days after the order, Trump repeatedly lashed out at Merchan in social media posts that included information about the judge's adult daughter, who works for a consulting firm whose clients include Democratic candidates and progressive groups.

Earlier this month, Merchan concluded that the comments about his daughter would "undoubtedly interfere with the fair administration of justice" and represent "a direct attack on the Rule of Law itself."

Merchan expanded the gag order to include his own family, and said he was doing so because he didn't want potential jurors to conclude "that if they become involved in these proceedings, even tangentially, they should worry not only for themselves, but their loved ones."

Merchan's order included a warning to Trump: Any "right he may have to access to juror names will be forfeited by continued harassing or disruptive conduct."

The use of anonymous juries is typically reserved for cases involving the Mafia and drug cartels, experts said. But a judge in two of Trump's recent federal civil cases chose to keep jurors' identities secret, even warning them to use fake names with each other. Those juries unanimously, and quickly, ruled against Trump, finding him liable for sexual abuse and defamation in May 2023, and related defamation allegations in January.

But one aspect of Merchan's warning in particular "gives real teeth to the sanctions order," according to Levin: The jurors would be anonymous only to Trump.

"That is a major sanction, to not know who is winding up on the jury, particularly when the other side is going to know," Levin said.

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