How is the jury chosen for Trump’s NY criminal trial? Experts explain the ‘challenges’

On April 15, dozens of New Yorkers will be summoned to a Manhattan courtroom. There they will have the chance to serve as jurors in the hush money trial against former President Donald Trump, the first criminal trial of an ex-president in American history.

However, only 12 will be deemed worthy to sit in the jury box across from the former president.

The process of selecting the jury will be lengthy and riddled with unique challenges brought on by the defendant being one of the most well-known men in the world, one whom almost everyone has an opinion about, according to legal experts.

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How jury selection works

The first part of the jury selection process involves assembling a pool of potential jurors.

This panel, known as the venire, is randomly selected from public records, typically from lists of drivers license holders or registered voters, Sharon Fairley, a professor from practice at the University of Chicago Law School, told McClatchy News.

Members of this venire, all Manhattan residents, will then be sent a written questionnaire to help winnow down the field.

Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over the case, released the contents of the questionnaire in an April 8 letter. The questions focus on potential jurors’ occupations, their family lives and even their media consumption habits.

“Once they’ve narrowed the group down to the people who are going to show up to the courtroom for jury selection, then you have the process that happens in court, known as voir dire,” Fairley said.

During this process, potential jurors will be peppered with questions to shed light on their backgrounds and biases.

“What’s important to understand with New York state as compared to federal jury selection…is that it’s attorney-led voir dire,” Phillip Hamilton, a criminal defense attorney in New York, told McClatchy News. This means it will be Trump’s attorneys and prosecutors who will scrutinize the panel, not Judge Merchan.

“The attorneys are going to have broad leeway to explore the mindset of the jurors to determine whether or not they’re going to be an impartial juror,” Hamilton said.

All kinds of questions — ranging from boilerplate to hyper-specific — will be asked, Hamilton said.

“There will be questions around that person’s experience with the criminal justice system,” Fairley said. “Do they have any friends or family who have been sent to jail? Or do they have any friends or family in law enforcement?”

Case-specific queries are also likely to arise, including about potential juror opinions on pornography — since the trial centers on payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels, Hamilton said.

However, “the key questions are going center around the ability of the prospective jurors to put aside any politics they have, to only consider the evidence that is presented and to follow the law,” Edward Kone, a criminal attorney in Florida, told McClatchy News. “Anything less would be a total miscarriage of justice in any criminal case much less a case involving the opposition leader in our country.”

After potential jurors are questioned, attorneys for both sides will have the opportunity to dismiss members “for cause,” which means “there’s a specific reason why they can’t be on the jury,” Fairley said.

These reasons could include hardship. For example, if a prospective juror is a single mother who says she cannot miss work for several weeks, she could be dismissed, Fairley said.

Potential jurors can also be sent away for cause if they have “very firm views,” such as a strong hatred for Trump, she said.

In addition, attorneys for both sides are allotted a specific number of peremptory strikes, which allow them to dismiss potential jurors for any reason at all, such as “they don’t like their body language,” Fairley said.

When considering which potential jurors to keep, prosecutors look for individuals “who care about holding people accountable,” Fairley said. Trump’s attorneys, however, will likely zero in on people who express less concern about infidelity.

Given Manhattan is a very liberal jurisdiction, Trump’s lawyers may also pay special attention to potential jurors from neighborhoods that are historically more conservative, such as the Upper East Side, Hamilton said.

After all objections are made — either for cause or via peremptory strike — those who remain are chosen to serve, Hamilton said.

“It’s not like an affirmative choice as much as neither side has an objection,” he said, “so that juror survives and they become part of the jury.”

‘Unique challenges’

“There are very unique challenges in the Trump case,” Kone said.

Chief among them is that everyone has, at the very least, some opinions about Trump, even if they don’t know the specifics of the case, Hamilton said.

“That’s going to be tough,” he added. “People love him; people hate him, and (they’re) just going to have to try to find people who, no matter what their predisposition is towards Trump, can actually just hear the case and follow the law and the criminal procedure as is required.”

However, given the high-profile nature of the case, it’s possible some potential jurors will disguise their true feelings in an attempt to be placed on the jury — either to acquit or convict Trump, Hamilton said.

“The challenge is that jurors are supposed to be honest and direct in their answers, but you sometimes don’t know if they’re being as forthcoming as they should,” Fairley said.

Because of this, it will be incumbent upon both sides to take a deeper dive into the lives of potential jurors to help corroborate their answers.

“You’ve got to research those jurors. You have to look them up on Facebook, do some Google searches,” Hamilton said.

On the other hand, there will likely be members of the pool who have little to no interest in politics, Fairley said.

“You’d be surprised,” Fairley said. “There are a lot of people who are just not that politically involved, but they’re smart and capable and can do the job.”

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