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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Prosecutors and defense lawyers begin to seat jurors for Trump trial

Former president Donald Trump, speaks to reporters during a campaign stop made after court at a bodega in Harlem where in 2022 a clerk fatally stabbed a man who shoved him, in New York on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Anna Watts/The New York Times)

By Ben Protess, Jonah E. Bromwich, Maggie Haberman and Wesley Parnell

The daunting work of selecting a jury for the first criminal trial of a former American president rapidly gained momentum Tuesday as seven New Yorkers were picked to sit in judgment of Donald Trump, accelerating a crucial phase of the case that many had expected to be a slog.

The judge overseeing the case said that if jurors continued to be seated at this pace, opening arguments would most likely begin Monday.

The first seven members of the panel that will decide whether Trump falsified records to cover up a sex scandal involving an adult film actor were picked in short order after the lunch break. The lawyers quizzed them on their politics, views about the former president and ability to remain impartial in a case that could offend their sensibilities.

And Trump’s lawyers examined their digital footprints, bringing several jurors into the courtroom one by one to ask them about past social media posts that seemed as if they could betray a negative opinion of the former president.

The wrangling underscored the importance and challenge of picking a jury in a city where the defendant is deeply unpopular — and not just any defendant, but the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Jury selection is pivotal: The outcome of the case could depend on who ultimately serves on the panel, which will include 12 jurors and most likely six alternates.

The two sides reached agreement on four men and three women whose lives will forever be shaped by the landmark trial, and who in turn may shape American political history. They include a man originally from Ireland who will serve as foreperson, an oncology nurse, a grandfather originally from Puerto Rico, a middle school teacher from Harlem, two lawyers and a software engineer for The Walt Disney Co.

While of different ages and ethnicities, the chosen seven had one thing in common: They vowed to give Trump a fair shake.

And although prosecutors might have the upper hand in Manhattan, one of the nation’s most Democratic counties, there were glimmers of hope for Trump. Just one stubborn juror can torpedo a case and hang a jury, an outcome that would be a victory for Trump.

The Harlem teacher, a young Black woman who hails from a family of police officers, said she appreciated Trump’s bombastic style and referred to him as “President Trump,” a title of respect and one his own lawyers use in court.

“President Trump speaks his mind, and I’d rather that than someone who’s in office who you don’t know what they’re thinking,” she said.

Other potential jurors presented red flags for the former president. Trump’s lead lawyer, Todd Blanche, quickly sought the dismissal of several for their online activity. One woman, he noted, had heralded a court decision overturning a travel ban Trump enacted as president and had at one point written “Get him out, and lock him up.” She was excused.

When another potential juror was being interviewed about her old Facebook posts, Trump began to mutter and gesture, drawing a rebuke from the judge, Juan Merchan.

“I won’t tolerate that,” the judge said, raising his voice once the potential juror had left the room. “I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom.”

Leaving court, Trump criticized Merchan, saying he was “rushing the trial.” But later, he withheld judgment of the jurors themselves, remarking, “We’ll see what happens.”

Trump, who was charged by the Manhattan district attorney’s office with 34 felony counts and may take the witness stand in his own defense, has denied all wrongdoing. But during the 2016 presidential campaign, prosecutors say, Trump directed his fixer, Michael Cohen, to pay hush money to the actor, Stormy Daniels. And while serving as president, he had his company falsify records to hide his reimbursement of Cohen, according to the charges.

Prosecutors say it was a pattern for Trump: Faced with stories that could have doomed his campaign, he concealed them to influence the election. If the jury convicts him, he faces up to four years behind bars.

Tuesday’s batch of potential jurors mirrored their city of 8.4 million, the most populous in the nation: They were diverse, opinionated, hard to pigeonhole. There was an Upper East Side investment banker, a high school teacher who likes to sew, a Mexico-born man who listens to podcasts about gay issues, and a bookseller who believes “no one is above the law.”

They were there involuntarily, because jury duty is an inescapable responsibility of citizenship. It can be tedious, exhausting or even exhilarating to judge a fellow American, someone a juror has never met or thought of before a trial convenes.

But everyone knows Donald Trump, the former reality television star turned polarizing president, who is once again running for that office. And in this case, the first of Trump’s four indictments to move to trial, the possible jurors are carrying a burden of history that appeared to agonize some of them.

Some acknowledged they could not be fair. The investment banker said he was just too busy to give up the next two months of his life.

Others embraced the moment, and even sought to convince both the defense and prosecution of their bona fides.

Blanche questioned the bookseller who argued that no one is above the law, trying to elicit his views on the former president. But the bookseller rebuffed him, saying that his opinion “has absolutely no bearing on the case.” He finally acknowledged he was a Democrat — like an overwhelming majority of Manhattan residents — but did not budge further.

He was dismissed after some anti-Trump social media posts came to light.

A white-haired woman became animated when asked whether she would hold it against Trump if he did not testify.

“That’s your right. You can’t presume that makes him guilty,” she said, waving her hands for emphasis as she uttered the words every defense lawyer wants to hear. “The prosecutor’s the one that has to present those facts and prove them,” she added.

Blanche replied, “I don’t think I could have said it better myself,” though the woman later disclosed that “politically, we have big disagreements, your client and myself,” and she was excused.

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