No fewer than 96 Manhattan residents armed with court summons made their way, Monday, April 15, through the crowd gathered in front of the New York court to reach the hypermedia courtroom on the fifteenth floor. As they entered, Donald Trump’s gaze, supported by his emblematic red tie, turned in their direction. He was looking for a glimpse of the New Yorkers who could decide his fate in the Stormy Daniels affair.

The former US president, the first in history to submit himself as a defendant to a criminal trial, is accused of having paid the pornographic actress not to make public a past relationship before the 2016 presidential election.

To protect their anonymity, these potential jurors – the first to appear among the approximately five hundred residents drawn at random – were only designated by an identification number. Faced with the risk of pressure, Judge Juan Merchan decided that the names of the twelve selected jurors and their six alternates would not be made public.

We still have to succeed in composing the jury. This stage of the hearing, possibly decisive in the outcome of the trial, is already presenting itself as a headache, due to the notoriety of the defendant and the polarization of the American political climate, less than seven months before the presidential election. Finding impartial and unbiased jurors on the case could take several days or even weeks.

Battery of questions

The procedure provides that jurors can first choose to challenge themselves, if they consider themselves incapable of being fair and impartial during the trial. Certain professional or family obligations, or the physical inability to attend the entire trial can also be invoked. Usually, these reasons must be justified, but Judge Merchan, faced with the unprecedented scale of the trial, decided to dismiss without debate those who expressed doubts.

Those who remain will be subjected to a battery of questions – the judge chose 42 in total. One by one, they will be questioned about their age, their education, their professional situation, their family life. If their political affiliation and their votes in past elections will not be discussed, they will be asked how they get information, what radio they listen to, if they have read the ex-president’s books, have links with pro organizations or anti-Trump, with the QAnon movement, the Proud Boys or even “antifa” collectives. We will also gauge their pre-existing opinions on the case, the accused, and the treatment of Donald Trump by the courts.

“Contrary to the defense’s arguments, the purpose of jury selection is not to determine whether a potential juror likes or dislikes one of the parties,” the judge insisted in an April 8 letter, ruling out the difficulty denounced by Donald Trump’s lawyers of finding a fair jury in the Democratic bastion of Manhattan, which had voted 86.7% for Joe Biden in 2020. It is rather a question, continues the judge, of determining whether the juror will be able to “put aside any personal feelings or prejudices to make a decision based on evidence and the law.”

Hidden intentions

In practice, however, it is a matter of each camp targeting the profiles likely to tip the decision in their favor. Lawyers will work to detect unexpressed biases and hidden intentions; to sense which jurors might be sensitive to their arguments; to establish a relationship of trust with them, lists the Washington Post.

More concretely, according to information from the New York Times, Mr. Trump’s lawyers would seek “a jury composed rather of young black men and white working-class men, in particular civil servants such as police officers, firefighters or maintenance workers.” As the jury’s decision must be unanimous, it would be enough for the defense to include a juror absolutely convinced of Donald Trump’s innocence to avoid conviction.

Conversely, to disqualify supporters of the former Republican president, prosecutors should prefer “voters with a higher level of education, from Democratic neighborhoods”, be on the lookout for those who inquire about MSNBC or listen to comedian and “Late show” presenter Stephen Colbert, estimates the American daily.

Ten “jokers” for each side

To keep only the potential jurors who have their preference, each side will have the right to ten “peremptory challenges”, which allow them to remove a prospective juror without providing any explanation. In 1986, however, the United States ruled that the use of these “wildcards” to exclude people from a given group (based on their ethnic origin, gender, etc.) was unconstitutional. Lawyers and prosecutors may also request to disqualify other jurors for cause, presenting their reasons for believing that it will not be fair or impartial.

In the courtroom Monday, when the judge asked the 96 jurors who among them did not consider themselves impartial, many hands went up. About sixty of them were immediately exempted.

On the stand, the judge’s questions outlined varied profiles among those remaining, from an NPR radio listener who believes “no one is above the law” to a creative director who enjoys hiking. , cook and play with your dog. “Yes,” admitted, according to American media, a woman to the judge who asked her if she had “strong opinions or firmly held beliefs about former President Donald Trump” that would prevent her from being impartial. “It just wasn’t possible for me,” she said as she left the court. At the end of the first day, none of the 96 jurors present had been selected.