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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Judge’s instructions will be a road map for jury weighing Trump’s fate

Television news satellite trucks are parked outside the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in New York on Wednesday morning, May 29, 2024. Judge Juan M. Merchan on Wednesday explained to jurors the 34 charges of falsifying business records that former President Donald Trump faces. It was no simple task. (Adam Gray/The New York Times)

By William K. Rashbaum, Jonah E. Bromwich and Ben Protess

After seven weeks of legal wrangling and tawdry testimony, the first criminal trial of an American president moved to a jury of Donald Trump’s peers Wednesday morning, the final stage of the landmark trial.

Trump’s fate is in the hands of 12 New Yorkers who will weigh whether to brand him as a felon. It could take them hours, days or even weeks to reach a verdict, a decision that could reshape the nation’s legal and political landscapes. And while the country anxiously awaits their judgment, Trump will continue to campaign for the presidency.

The moment that deliberations began marked a transfer of power from the experts in the courtroom — the lawyers arguing the case and the judge presiding over it — to the everyday New Yorkers who forfeited weeks of their lives to assess a mountain of evidence about sex and scandal.

Before the jurors began, Judge Juan M. Merchan delivered an array of legal instructions to guide their decision-making. He impressed on them the gravity of their task but also said that the defendant — even a former president — is their peer.

“As a juror, you are asked to make a very important decision about another member of the community,” Merchan said, referring to the defendant.

The criminal case exposed what prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office described as a fraud on the American people. It is one of four against Trump, but most likely the only one that will go to trial before Election Day.

The Manhattan charges stem from a hush-money deal that Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, struck with a porn actor in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Prosecutors charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records, saying he disguised his reimbursement of Cohen as ordinary legal expenses.

The jurors, seven men and five women, hail from different neighborhoods of the nation’s largest city and hold a wide variety of jobs, representing a cross-section of Manhattan. Many of them have advanced degrees, and the panel may be aided by the two members who are lawyers, though neither appears to have criminal experience, and one said during jury selection that he knew “virtually nothing about criminal law.”

On Wednesday morning, Merchan laid out for them the legal instructions to guide their discussions. He described to them the legal meaning of the word “intent” and the concept of the presumption of innocence. He also reminded the jurors that they had pledged to set aside any biases against the former president before they were sworn in, and that Trump’s decision not to testify cannot be held against him.

Then, Merchan explained each the 34 charges of falsifying business records that Trump faces. It was the most important guidance that the judge offered during the trial. And it was no simple task.

In New York, falsifying records is a misdemeanor, unless the documents were faked to hide another crime. The other crime, prosecutors say, was Trump’s violation of state election law that prohibited conspiring to aid a political campaign using “unlawful means” — a crime they say he committed during his 2016 campaign for president.

Those means, prosecutors argue, could include any of a menu of other crimes. And so each individual false-records charge that Trump faces contains within it multiple possible crimes that jurors must strive to understand.

Merchan explained which document each count pertained to, referring to each of the 34 falsified records — 11 invoices from Cohen, 12 entries in the Trump Organization’s general ledger and 11 checks, nine of them signed by Trump.

Marc F. Scholl, who served nearly 40 years in the district attorney’s office, noted that jury instructions are often difficult to follow, particularly given that, in New York, jurors are barred from keeping a copy of the guidance as they deliberate. And he said that defendants are often charged with several different crimes, requiring even more elaborate instructions.

Still, Scholl said, one point of complexity stood out in the Trump case: “Usually you don’t have this layering of these other crimes.”

Merchan encouraged jurors, if they find themselves confused by legal arcana, to send him a note seeking clarification. “He recognizes it’s a lot to take in,” Scholl said.

The judge drove home that point to the jurors several times during his instructions, which took over an hour to deliver, urging them to seek his guidance about anything they did not understand, saying he would be happy to provide it.

If convicted, Trump would face a sentence ranging from probation to four years in prison — although he would be certain to appeal, a process that could take years.

Compared with the instructions, the trial testimony was relatively straightforward. Prosecutors called 20 witnesses as they sought to convince jurors that Trump had hatched the election conspiracy with his former personal lawyer and fixer, Cohen, and the publisher of a supermarket tabloid, The National Enquirer, David Pecker.

The first witness, Pecker, testified that in a 2015 meeting at Trump Tower, he had agreed to suppress unflattering stories on behalf of Trump’s candidacy. He did so twice, he said. He paid a former Trump Organization doorman and a former Playboy model to keep silent after learning that both of them had damaging stories to sell about the candidate.

But Pecker did not pay for the third — and potentially the most damaging — story that came to his attention. That story belonged to Stormy Daniels, a porn actor who said that she had a sexual encounter with Trump 10 years earlier, a story that she repeated from the witness stand and that Trump has always denied.

The final prosecution witness, Cohen, testified that Trump had ordered him to pay Daniels to keep silent. Cohen obeyed, sending $130,000 to Daniels in the days before the election.

After Trump won, Cohen said, Trump approved the plan to falsify the reimbursement records.

Defense lawyers repeatedly sought to paint Cohen as an inveterate liar out for revenge against the boss who spurned him.

On Wednesday, Merchan told the jury that the law considers Cohen an accomplice “because there is evidence that he participated in a crime, based upon conduct involved in the allegations here against the defendant.”

But he also told the jurors that “even if you find the testimony of Michael Cohen to be believable, you may not convict the defendant solely upon that testimony, unless you also find that it was corroborated by other evidence.”

Merchan then proceeded through each of the 34 charges count by count to explain what prosecutors had needed to prove. The knotty legal instructions were the product of intense argument between the prosecution and the defense, culminating in a hearing last week in which each side sought to persuade the judge to make minor edits that they hoped would have a major impact.

The result was a compromise, with both sides securing some victories.

In one important decision, the judge rejected a defense request that jurors be unanimous on which “unlawful means” Trump had used to aid his election win. That request would have made reaching a verdict far more difficult.

Prosecutors argued that would be special treatment and that the former president should be treated like any other defendant. Trump’s lawyers argued that while the law did not require such unanimity, Merchan could nonetheless ask for it.

“What you’re asking me to do is change the law, and I’m not going to do that,” Merchan told Trump’s lawyers.

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