Trump Organization goes on trial in New York, testing the concept of the impartial juror
Case involves 'off the books' payments and gifts that were not declared for tax purposes
When jury selection begins in the criminal trial of former U.S. president Donald Trump's company on Monday, prosecutors and the defence will likely be on alert for "stealth" jurors seeking to hide political biases in the hopes of being named to the panel, legal experts told Reuters.
The Manhattan District Attorney's Office has charged the Trump Organization with nine counts of tax fraud and other crimes for allegedly making "off the books" payments to executives since 2005, allowing employees to understate their taxable income and enabling the company to evade payroll taxes.
If convicted, the Trump Organization could be fined more than $1 million US. A guilty verdict could hamper the company's ability to get loans and make deals.
The company has pleaded not guilty.
In August, Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg admitted to taking in more than $1.7 million US worth of untaxed extras — including school tuition for his grandchildren, free rent for a Manhattan apartment and lease payments for a luxury car. Weisselberg is likely to testify to the jury.
"It's very, very hard, especially with a name this big … for people to be able to separate your organization from the person who it's named after," said Melissa Gomez, president of MMG Jury Consulting in Philadelphia.
The trial comes as the former president, a Republican, is weighing another possible bid for the White House in 2024.
Gallup polls run every week during his presidency detailed passionate and somewhat hardened views of Trump. Trump's approval rating ranged from 34 to 49 per cent, with between 47 and 62 per cent disapproving of his handling of the job of president.
Political views alone not disqualifying
During jury selection — which begins on Monday — lawyers for both sides will question prospective jurors to select a panel of 12 members and six alternates. While jurors cannot be excluded for simply holding certain political views or expressing disapproval of Trump, experts said the lawyers will aim to remove jurors who cannot be fair and impartial.
Experts said they expect the defence to look out for so-called "stealth jurors" who do not answer questions about their views honestly in the hopes of being chosen. Partisan Democrats who hope that a guilty verdict could hurt Trump's political prospects may be particularly motivated to hide the intensity of their views to get on the panel, Gomez said.
"Because of the social and societal implications — and particularly because this could be one of the first steps in ensuring that Donald Trump cannot run in the future — there's a high risk of a stealth juror," Gomez said.
Similarly, Gomez said the government will look to weed out strongly pro-Trump jurors who are unable to put those views aside. Such prospective jurors are likely to be vastly outnumbered: Democratic President Joe Biden won 86 per cent of the vote in Manhattan in the 2020 election, according to New York State data.
During a discussion about jury selection at a Sept. 12 court hearing before Judge Juan Merchan, Trump Organization lawyer Susan Necheles said she wanted to ensure that any jurors were excused if they said, "I hate former president Trump. I would always vote to convict."
Joshua Steinglass, an assistant district attorney, said his office shared the same concerns "in terms of who we are trying to prevent from being on the jury."
Trump's legal problems growing
The trial comes as the former U.S. president's legal woes are mounting. He faces a a federal probe into the removal of government documents from the White House when he left office and a defamation lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll, a writer who has accused him of raping her.
Trump has also been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol that took place after weeks of his election denials, events that are also being probed by a grand jury in D.C.
Lawyers for the Trump Organization have claimed the Manhattan district attorney's case is a "selective prosecution" based on animosity toward Trump's political views, though the judge overseeing it has rejected that argument.
Both Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his predecessor, Cyrus Vance, who began the investigation, are Democrats.
Jury clash in border wall fundraising case
Lawyers for the defence will likely conduct "deep scours of internet research" and review jurors' social media profiles to make sure jurors have not expressed a disqualifying level of antipathy to Trump online, said Christina Marinakis, director for jury research at Litigation Insights in Baltimore.
"There is some degree of due diligence that needs to be done to look at whether people are posting things online against your client, or that may be not consistent with what they're saying in court," Marinakis said.
A guilty verdict must be unanimous, which means one juror unwilling to convict could see the case lead to a mistrial.
Earlier this year, a case involving associates of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon who were accused of defrauding a charity founded to help pay for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico ended in mistrial, with reports of tensions between jurors of differing political views.
Eleven jurors in that case sent a note to the judge asking another juror to be removed because that person had shown an anti-government bias and accused all the others of being liberals. The judge declined and the jury ultimately couldn't agree on a verdict.
With files from CBC News and The Associated Press
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