NEW YORK – Donald Trump’s company went on trial Monday in a criminal tax case and the first task facing the court was a big one: picking a jury of New Yorkers who didn't have a strong opinion about the former president.
About half of an initial pool of 132 prospective jurors begged off the jury before formal questioning began, with some telling reporters outside the courtroom that they know they couldn't be fair in a trial related to Trump.
Yoke Chai, 60, the lone prospective juror among 18 who orally answered written questions in the afternoon to be excused from the jury pool, said as she left the courtroom that she told lawyers and the judge at a sidebar that she was not sure she could be unbiased in a case involving Trump.
Questioning of the first group of prospective jurors to sit in the jury box was to continue Tuesday morning, with lawyers from each side permitted to ask questions for 30 minutes. After a sufficient number of prospective jurors are screened, lawyers will be allowed to exclude more individuals from the panel to reach the final dozen jurors.
Manhattan prosecutors say the Trump Organization helped top executives avoid income taxes on job perks such as rent-free apartments and luxury cars.
Trump himself isn't on trial and isn't expected to testify. The judge and lawyers in the case were looking to keep people off the jury if they have unshakably strong feelings about the Republican, who isn't liked in his hometown.
In the 2020 presidential election, 87% of Manhattan voters supported Democrat Joe Biden for president. Trump got 12% of the vote.
“Day 1 in the books,” a pleased William Brennan, one of the Trump Organization’s lawyers, said as he exited the courthouse late Monday afternoon. ”When you boil it all down, it is a garden-variety tax case. And that’s how they should look at it.”
Attorney Michael van der Veen, another Trump Organization attorney, said Tuesday would involve “sludging through, really getting down to people's interests and whether they can be fair or not.” He said they hoped to have a jury by Friday.
Judge Juan Manuel Merchan warned all prospective jurors to avoid researching the case on the internet or talking to anybody about it.
In the morning, he described the case to them and explained that he wants unbiased jurors who will decide the case solely on the evidence.
Merchan told the jury pool the trial would last about six weeks, and that they should expect during the presentation of evidence to hear Trump's name and the names of his three eldest children, Ivanka, Eric and Donald Trump Jr.
After the introduction, Merchan and the lawyers retreated to a back room out of public view where they let prospective jurors who raised their hands explain why they thought they didn't belong on the jury.
Those who were excused from the jury pool emerged from the courtroom, telling reporters they were let go for various reasons, including for medical issues or job-related stresses.
But several said their bias got them a fast exit, including a psychiatrist who said she told them that Trump exhibits social narcissistic behavior and the charges related to the company reflect his personality.
Delvin Gerdan, a Manhattan doorman, said he merely expressed that he was opinionated about Trump. He said he was asked if he would be “leaning more toward one side” and he responded “yes.” That was enough to get him excused.
A woman who identified herself only as Adrienne N., 34, said she was excused for reasons other than bias. But she said she was also ready to say she could not be fair.
“He's guilty in my mind, whatever the case is,” the advertising industry worker said.
The trial is expected to center on the actions and testimony of longtime Trump Organization executive Allen Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty in August to accepting more than $1.7 million worth of untaxed perks from the company.
Trump has decried the probe as a “political witch hunt." The company's lawyers have said the Trump Organization played by the rules.
If convicted, the company could be fined more than $1 million. A guilty verdict could hamper its ability to get loans and make deals.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg inherited the prosecution when he took office in January. Bragg has taken a cautious approach with Trump, declining so far to bring charges against him personally in what's now a three-year investigation.
The jury selection process could take several days, especially if people in the pool express reservations about their ability to be neutral. Getting a panel with an open mind, though, could be critical to avoiding a mistrial.
In the spring, another trial in a nearby federal courthouse ended in a mistrial because of tensions between jurors about political views. That case involved an associate of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon who was accused of defrauding a charity founded to help pay for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. His retrial began Monday.
Eleven jurors in that case sent a note to the judge asking that another juror 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.