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Attorneys face unprecedented challenge in selecting jury for Trumps hush money trial

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(NEW YORK) — On a Monday morning later this month, a group of randomly selected New Yorkers will enter criminal court in lower Manhattan.

In the following days, the 18 of them who remain will be tasked with the unprecedented public service of being a juror in the first criminal trial of a former president.

The process of selecting those final jurors for Donald Trump’s hush money case — 12 of whom will decide the case with the remaining serving as alternates — is set to be a high stakes endeavor. Trump and his attorneys have repeatedly complained about the political composition of New York’s jury pool, while both parties agree that the former president is a universally known figure, complicating the process of finding an impartial jury.

“There is no chance that we’re going to find a single juror that doesn’t have a view of President Trump — former President Trump,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said at a hearing last month. “He was the president. People know who he is.”

Once the jury is selected, they face a process that has played out thousands of times before in the same courthouse — but this time against the backdrop of presidential election where the presumptive Republican nominee is the defendant they are tasked with judging.

“They will be pulled from their lives and their jobs, with hardly any compensation, and they will be charged by their country and by their state with undertaking a very difficult and perilous task,” Dartmouth College government professor Russell Muirhead told ABC News.

Trump last April pleaded not guilty to a 34-count indictment charging him with falsifying business records in connection with a hush money payment his then-attorney Michael Cohen made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels just days before the 2016 presidential election.

Here are four things to know about the jury that will hear the case.

How will the jury be selected?

The voir dire or jury selection process will be similar to other high-profile trials in the same courthouse. Potential jurors will answer questions from a questionnaire that elicits some basic biographical information, asks about their preexisting knowledge of the case, and probes for potential bias.

The potential jurors will be anonymous to the public, but Trump and the lawyers in the case will know their names. Only the lawyers in the case will learn the jurors’ addresses.

Unlike the jury selection in Trump’s two civil trials involving the writer E. Jean Carroll — where the judge completed jury selection in less than a day — the process in a state criminal trial more directly involves the lawyers for both sides and generally runs longer.

“Both sides get to ask questions, so it kind of triples the amount of time,” said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, who previously served as the chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s trial division.

As the jurors complete the questionnaire, the lawyers on either side can begin challenging a juror’s selection if they determine any jurors suggest they can’t be fair or impartial or have a scheduling conflict with the lengthy trial. Judge Juan Merchan recently told the parties that he plans to excuse any juror who determines they can’t be impartial or are unable to sit for the entire trial.

Once the lawyers complete their unlimited number of challenges for cause, they can remove potential jurors using peremptory strikes for any reason; however, because Trump is only charged with a Class E felony, the attorneys are only permitted 10 of them.

“It’s this whole game everybody plays to try to get the best jury for you … that’s going to have people who you think are going to be good for your side,” said Agnifilo.

The process — which can take as short as a day or stretch into the second week of the trial — will ultimately yield twelve jurors and six alternates, which Trump and his lawyers will have a direct hand in selecting.

“This jury isn’t going to be forced down his throat,” said Agnifilo. “He will have chosen the people in this jury.”

How do prosecutors screen for bias?

Politics are likely to be the central issue of Trump’s jury selection process. Defense lawyer Todd Blanche put it bluntly at a recent court conference, saying, “What we all really want to know, and what they want to know, is, do you like President Trump?”

Judge Merchan pushed back on that idea, telling the parties that “the issue is whether these people can be fair and impartial.”

But the concern about political bias has permeated many of the questions proposed for the jury questionnaire. Among the proposed questions are ones asking jurors about where they get their news, to whom they make political donations, and whether they’re involved in organizations like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, or in movements like antifa.

While attorneys will not be allowed to ask who the potential jurors voted for, some questions follow a similar thread and could help identify jurors who might not be impartial.

“Do any of you believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen?” prosecutors proposed as a possible question.

Jurors might have strong thoughts on the former president, but former prosecutors who ABC News spoke with expressed confidence that jurors could set those feelings aside and deliver a fair verdict.

“There’s something very solemn about a courtroom and sitting in judgment of somebody — and you can hate someone and hate what they did, and still acquit because the prosecution didn’t prove it,” Agnifilo told ABC News.

What makes a ‘good’ juror for this trial?

While Trump’s recognizability makes the jury selection unique, attorneys will likely still look for the same red flags that apply to jury selection in standard criminal trials, according to multiple former prosecutors who spoke with ABC News.

In addition to political bias, lawyers will likely watch for jurors’ preexisting knowledge of the case, according to former federal prosecutor Josh Naftalis. Lawyers have proposed asking the jurors if they have seen news coverage about Trump or read books authored by the former president or by his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who will likely testify at the trial.

Jurors’ thoughts about the nature of Trump’s alleged offense — such as being skeptical of financial crimes — could concern the prosecutors on the case.

“Trying to find a pool of people who don’t know, don’t have a view about Trump or don’t know about the case is going to take time,” Naftalis said.

What is a ‘stealth juror?’

Despite a lengthy jury selection process, voir dire can still result in a consequential unknown.

“Both litigants on both sides sometimes fear what’s sometimes called the ‘stealth juror’ whose views only become clear in the jury room, and then only to the other jurors — and that person ends up trying to drive a solution or a verdict in one way or the other,” said Jarrod Schaeffer, a former federal public corruption prosecutor.

The criminal trial of a Colorado businessman accused of laundering money to build Trump’s border wall — who was originally charged alongside Trump adviser Steve Bannon before he was pardoned by Trump — ended in a deadlock in 2022 after a single juror remained unconvinced of the charges. His fellow jurors told reporters after the trial that the holdout fell asleep and ignored evidence during the trial, but refused to change his mind once in the jury room. The federal judge overseeing the case declared a mistrial after determining the jury was “hopelessly deadlocked.”

Prosecutors in Trump’s federal criminal case in Florida related his retention of classified documents have also expressed concerns that jurors might attempt to game the system to “to increase their odds of serving or avoiding service on the jury.”

Courts have methods of addressing misconduct if a juror lies to get onto a jury, and Schaeffer told ABC News that instances of “stealth jurors” are remarkably uncommon compared to the vast majority of jurors who treat their service responsibly.

“In my experience, most jurors, whether they want to be better or not, are honest people who do their best to follow the rules and try to get it right,” he said.

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