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Why Florida Jury Selection Can Make or Break Trump’s Documents Trial

When Donald Trump goes on trial in his classified documents case, the court will have to find 12 Florida jurors who can leave their opinion of the former president at the door. That won’t be easy.

Jurors are supposed to assess the case on its merits, not their preconceived notion of the defendant. But with a figure as famous and polarising as Mr Trump, that could prove very difficult, lawyers from the state told the BBC.

To secure a conviction, the jury’s decision must be unanimous. It would only take one juror voting in Mr Trump’s favour for the US government to lose its case.

Both federal prosecutors and Mr Trump’s defence team will use every tool – aggressive questioning, vetoes, legal manoeuvres, and potentially even psychologists – to help them weed out biased jurors. But even the most thorough tactics aren’t fool-proof.

“The added element is people with agendas,” said Rob Mendell, a Florida trial attorney. “You’ve got to be on the lookout for the snakes in the grass.”

A politically polarised jury pool

The Justice Department charges that Mr Trump and an aide illegally took classified documents from the White House, stored them in unsecure places at his personal residence, and obstructed the government’s efforts to retrieve them.

Mr Trump’s team has entered a not guilty plea on his behalf, and he has called the case a political “witch hunt.” He has argued, without evidence, that Democratic President Joe Biden is trying to interfere in his political campaign.

The federal judge overseeing the case has set a tentative trial date of 14 August. Although the start of the trial is expected to be pushed back, it has renewed focus on the challenge of selecting a fair and impartial jury in a place where Mr Trump receives unwavering support from many, but is regarded with contempt by others.

It will be up to 12 residents of the Southern District of Florida, the politically diverse jurisdiction covered by this federal court, to decide which side wins.

Some counties, like Miami-Dade, went decisively for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. But in others, like the Key West region in Monroe County, 53% of voters went for Mr Trump. He also has strong support among Miami’s large and vocal Cuban community.

Lazaro Ecenarro, a Miami native in his 40s who attended Mr Trump’s arraignment on 13 June as a member of the public, dismissed the “fraudulent charges” brought by the “mob created by the Democratic party and the media”.

On the other hand, Jeff Roche, another Miami resident who the BBC spoke to that day, slammed Mr Trump as a “con man and a liar”.

Weeding out the snakes

This is the political climate from which the judge, prosecutors, and defence must select fair jurors during a vital process known as voir dire, the technical term for jury selection.

During jury selection, both sides get to ask questions of potential jurors. They both have the same goal: to seat fair jurors, but also ones who could potentially deliver them a favourable verdict.

“Everyone calls it jury selection,” said Mr Mendell, the trial lawyer. “But really it’s jury exclusion.”

Mr Mendell said if he were representing Mr Trump, he would hire a team of political experts and psychologists to help formulate questions to find the people they might want on the jury.

He would look to identify key groups that polls show are more likely to support the former president, citing Cuban Americans or people with links to law enforcement as two examples.

Prosecutors, too, will be screening potential jurors closely for anyone with perceived support for Mr Trump, the experts said.

But even the most intense questioning could miss Mr Mendell’s aforementioned “snakes in the grass”.

“Someone may not tell the truth during the voir dire selection,” said Dr Tamara Rice Lave, professor at the University of Miami School of Law. Should a person who hid their true political views make it onto the jury, “those jurors poison the other jurors – and they vote to acquit”, she said.

Mr Mendell believes it will be very difficult in Florida to find a panel of jurors that won’t include avid Trump supporters. “People who will not convict him under any circumstances – despite the oath they take and the instructions the judge gives them,” he said.

Judges play a central role in weeding out jurors that may have bias towards either party. In Mr Trump’s case, that work will fall to Florida judge Aileen Cannon, whom the former president himself nominated in 2020.

Minds already made up

With Mr Trump using his social channels to call the trial a “witch hunt” and accuse the government of attempting to “rigg [sic] the 2024 Election”, it’s likely that tensions will be high once the trial kicks into high gear.

Dr Lave noted that Mr Trump’s supporters “literally stormed Congress” on January 6, 2021, and the rhetoric, particularly from the political right, has become increasingly tinged with violence.

“How are people going to feel in this heated environment, with protesters protesting at the courthouse” or spewing right-wing talking points, Dr Lave mused. “I understand how somebody…selected for this type of jury might be worried.”

Meanwhile at Cafe Versailles, a Cuban restaurant in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood, locals seemed ready to back Mr Trump despite the serious charges against him.

“We support Donald Trump because he knows about freedom,” explained Yero Basart, a local independent journalist having lunch at Cafe Versailles the day after Mr Trump stopped by following his court appearance.

“It’s important that the public knows that we Cubans understand the repression, understand the lack of liberty, and understand dictators,” he said.

In line behind him, Suyis Parra, a Venezuelan immigrant now living in Miami, said she could not yet vote or serve on a jury – but she had family members who could.

And, she said, they would all support Donald Trump.

Source : BBC