Categories: News

Trump’s jury doesn’t have to like him to be fair to him

Former President Donald Trump appears in Manhattan criminal court on April 19 for jury selection in his hush-money trial. Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. | Curtis Means/Getty Images

Trump insists that his jurors can’t be impartial. Don’t believe him.

As the Manhattan district attorney’s case against Donald Trump got underway this week — with the former president accused of falsifying business records to cover up hush-money payments — one question has so far haunted the proceedings: Can the court actually select an impartial jury for one of the most polarizing figures in American history?

Over the past week, the judge, prosecution, and defense have been interrogating prospective jurors, asking them things like where they get their news, and sifting through their social media accounts to see whether they’ve ever publicly expressed their views on Trump. Potential jurors have been asked to read out or explain posts or memes they’ve shared, and at least one was dismissed for sharing a post that included the words “lock him up,” in reference to Trump.

But by Friday, 12 jurors, and several alternate jurors — who sit through the trial in case a regular juror needs to be replaced at some point — were picked.

As the trial goes on, questions about these jurors’ impartiality will surely linger, because Trump and his allies have continued to attack the cases against him as a kind of political persecution — trials with predetermined outcomes. And juries have become his frequent target.

Trump, for example, quoted the Fox News host Jesse Waters in a social media post, claiming, “They are catching undercover Liberal Activists lying to the Judge in order to get on the Trump Jury.” That’s despite the fact that there’s a gag order that prohibits Trump from publicly talking about the jurors.

It’s just one window into how Trump plans to delegitimize the cases brought against him. In fact, since he was indicted, Trump has been preemptively undermining the legitimacy of his potential jury, arguing that it will be impossible to get a fair trial in jurisdictions where residents vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. In a recent Truth Social post, he called Manhattan — where he received 12 percent of the vote in 2020 — “the 2nd Worst Venue in the Country.”

“Don’t worry, we have the First Worst also, as the Witch Hunt continues!” Trump continued. “ELECTION INTERFERENCE!” (The First Worst venue, naturally, is Washington, DC, a favorite Trump target where only 5 percent of voters cast their ballots for him in the last presidential election.)

Regardless of what the former president says, the demographics of New York or Washington, DC, won’t determine whether or not he will receive a fair trial. That will depend on how the prosecution makes its case, and whether the jurors will take their jobs seriously and evaluate the case on its merits rather than on their views of the defendant — something that juries are more than capable of doing.

That’s why Trump’s disingenuous attacks on the jury are dangerous: not because he’s questioning their potential fairness (juries can indeed be unfair, and defendants have the right to point that out), but because he’s broadly deeming some Americans — that is, anyone who doesn’t support him — as inherently illegitimate jurors.

Who are the jurors who will determine Trump’s fate?

Just before the close of business on Thursday, the judge in the case announced that a jury had been chosen. Twelve jurors had been officially sworn in, and the judge signaled that both the prosecution and defense should have their opening remarks ready to go by Monday morning.

In a normal criminal trial, potential jurors who might have read about the case or know key actors could be viewed as a liability, because media reports could influence how they think about the charges. But this isn’t a normal case, and a jury pool that hasn’t heard of Donald Trump is not likely to be found anywhere.

Even if it somehow was, that would present its own problems: After all, would someone who doesn’t know much about the polarizing former president, or someone who’s entirely avoided the major news events of the past eight years, make for a good juror? Probably not.

As Joshua Steinglass, one of the Manhattan district attorney’s prosecutors, put it during the selection process, “No one is suggesting that you can’t be a fair juror because you’ve heard of Mr. Trump. We don’t expect you to have been living under a rock for the last eight years.”

Ultimately, just like any other case, the jury will have to focus on one thing: not their politics, but the laws in question.

The 12 jurors on the trial come from a range of backgrounds. They include financiers, litigators, retirees, tech workers, and a physical therapist. Some are married; some aren’t. Some have kids; some don’t. Some expressed having strong feelings about Trump; others said the opposite. One juror, who said she’s not a political person, said that she likes that Trump “speaks his mind, and I’d rather that than someone who’s in office who you don’t know what they’re thinking.” Yet all 12 said they can still be fair and impartial, and pledged to be as much.

It’s certainly reasonable to be concerned that people’s political preferences and biases might influence how they view this trial. Two jurors, for example, have already been removed after they had been seated. One of them said that her friends and family had guessed she was one of the jurors based on media reports on her background, and said, “I don’t believe at this point that I can be fair and unbiased and let the outside influences not affect my decision-making in the courtroom.”

The jurors’ ability to be fair and impartial will largely depend on how the judge manages the trial. Ensuring their anonymity, as the judge has, will go a long way in allowing jurors to ignore any outside influence. As Julie Blackman, a social psychologist who has worked as a jury consultant, put in an essay in the New York Times, “In my experience, well-instructed juries have shown time and again that they can put aside what they have learned outside the courtroom and focus on the evidence presented inside the courtroom.” The Supreme Court has also ruled that trials can indeed be fair, even if the case or defendant has received widespread publicity.

It might seem like Trump is pushing that boundary given his unique status as the only former US president to go on trial, but he is no different than any other defendant — he is accused of breaking the law and he can’t bypass a trial simply because he’s too famous.

That’s why the judge has to ensure that the jury is as fair and impartial as possible: Trump shouldn’t get any special treatment, no matter how much he rails against the judge, prosecutors, or jurors.

Why Trump’s attacks on jury impartiality are dangerous

Trump and some of his Republican colleagues have insisted that the juries in New York or Washington, DC — where his Jan. 6 case will be tried — are far too biased against him, and that a fair trial is impossible.

In doing so, Trump is essentially saying that the public should ultimately dismiss whatever verdict is delivered, just as he expected the public to dismiss the results of the 2020 election in jurisdictions he didn’t like, such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Detroit. Even if he is found guilty, he wants people to believe there is no way the trial will be fair (even though his lawyers played a role in selecting the jury).

Trump’s accusation doesn’t just undermine his own trial’s legitimacy. It undermines a bedrock element of America’s justice system — that when someone is accused of breaking the law, they will be judged by a jury of their peers. By saying that certain jurisdictions, let alone his hometown, can’t be fair, the former president suggests that only some Americans can be legitimate jurors.

That idea that some jurors are ill-suited for the task based on their background or where they live has racist roots that have long plagued the justice system and produced discriminatory outcomes. When Louisiana was barred from excluding Black people from its juries, it created a law in 1898 that intentionally undermined the legitimacy of Black jurors, specifically allowing nine white jurors to deliver a guilty verdict even if three Black jurors voted to acquit the defendant. It wasn’t until 2022 that the Supreme Court in Oregon, which had a similar law, ruled that any of the state’s prisoners who had received a non-unanimous verdict had invalid convictions. In Louisiana’s case, however, despite voters abolishing non-unanimous juries in 2018, the state’s supreme court maintained that all previous convictions would remain valid.

While Trump hasn’t said that he won’t receive a fair trial because of the racial makeup of the jury, the jurisdictions he complains about are much more racially diverse than places his lawyers have suggested that he could receive a fair trial (like West Virginia, for example).

Even if Trump’s attacks on the juries are strictly based on partisan lines, the criminal legal system does not rely on a defendant’s or jurors’ personal politics to mete out justice, despite what Trump says.

Ultimately, it all boils down to one simple fact. “This case,” Steinglass said, “is about whether this man broke the law.” And that’s now for the jury to decide.

Vox - Huntsville Tribune

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