Jury begins sifting evidence as it weighs Trump’s fate in criminal case

Television news satellite trucks are parked outside the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in New York on Wednesday morning, May 29, 2024. Justice Juan M. Merchan is expected on Wednesday to explain the 34 charges of falsifying business records that former President Donald Trump faces. It is no simple task. (Adam Gray/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — It’s all up to the jury now.

After seven weeks of legal wrangling and tawdry testimony, the first criminal trial of an American president moved to a jury of Donald Trump’s peers Wednesday morning, the final stage of the landmark trial.


Trump’s fate is in the hands of those 12 New Yorkers who will weigh whether to brand him as a felon. It could take them hours, days or even weeks to reach a verdict, a decision that could reshape the nation’s legal and political landscapes. And while the country anxiously awaits their judgment, Trump will continue to campaign for the presidency.

The moment that deliberations began marked a transfer of power from the experts in the courtroom — the lawyers arguing the case and the judge presiding over it — to the everyday New Yorkers who forfeited weeks of their lives to assess a mountain of evidence about sex and scandal.

The jurors spent more than four hours deliberating on Wednesday without reaching a verdict and then were dismissed for the day. They meet around a long table in an unremarkable room with unforgiving lighting and walls painted a hue best described as municipal. Located off a small hallway behind the courtroom, it is steps from the jury box and has a door at each end, outside of which a court officer stands guard.

Judge Juan M. Merchan had invited the jurors to send him a note if they were confused about the law, or wanted to revisit testimony from the trial. And they took him up on the offer, buzzing the court officer to relay a message requesting four excerpts from the testimony.

On Thursday, a court reporter will read that testimony to the jury, most of which comes from David Pecker, the former publisher of The National Enquirer, who prosecutors say was part of a conspiracy to suppress unflattering stories on Trump’s behalf during the 2016 election. Another portion of testimony relates to Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer who was the prosecution’s star witness.

Before the jurors began deliberating Wednesday, Merchan delivered an array of legal instructions to guide their decision-making. He impressed on them the gravity of their task but also said that the defendant — even a former president — is their peer.

“As a juror, you are asked to make a very important decision about another member of the community,” Merchan said, referring to the defendant.

The case exposed what prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office described as a fraud on the American people. It is one of four criminal cases against Trump, but most likely the only one that will have gone to trial by Election Day.

The Manhattan charges stem from a hush-money deal that Cohen struck with a porn actor in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Prosecutors charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records, saying he disguised his reimbursement of Cohen as ordinary legal expenses.

The jurors, seven men and five women, hail from different neighborhoods of the nation’s largest city and hold a wide variety of jobs, representing a cross-section of Manhattan. Many have advanced degrees, and the panel may be aided by the two members who are lawyers, though neither appears to have criminal experience, and one said during jury selection that he knew “virtually nothing about criminal law.”

On Wednesday morning, Merchan laid out the legal instructions to guide their discussions. He described to them the legal meaning of the word “intent” and the concept of the presumption of innocence. He also reminded the jurors that they had pledged to set aside any biases against the former president before they were sworn in, and that Trump’s decision not to testify cannot be held against him.

Then, Merchan explained each of the 34 charges of falsifying business records that Trump faces, one for each document the prosecution says that Trump falsified. It was the most important guidance that the judge offered during the trial. And it was no simple task.

In New York, falsifying records is a misdemeanor, unless the documents were faked to hide another crime. The other crime, prosecutors say, was Trump’s violation of state election law that prohibited conspiring to aid a political campaign using “unlawful means” — a crime they say he committed during his 2016 campaign for president.

Those means, prosecutors argue, could include any of a menu of other crimes. And so each individual false-records charge that Trump faces contains within it multiple possible crimes that jurors must strive to understand.

Merchan explained which document each count pertained to, referring to each of the 34 records — 11 invoices from Cohen, 12 entries in the Trump Organization’s general ledger and 11 checks, nine of them signed by Trump.

Marc F. Scholl, who served nearly 40 years in the district attorney’s office, noted that jury instructions are often difficult to follow, particularly given that, in New York, jurors are barred from keeping a copy of the guidance as they deliberate. And he said that defendants are often charged with several different crimes, requiring even more elaborate instructions.

Still, Scholl said, one point of complexity stood out in the Trump case: “Usually you don’t have this layering of these other crimes.”

Merchan encouraged jurors, if they find themselves confused by legal arcana, to send him a note seeking clarification, and in addition to their request for testimony, they asked the judge to repeat his instructions. “He recognizes it’s a lot to take in,” Scholl said.

If convicted, Trump would face a sentence ranging from probation to four years in prison — although he would be certain to appeal, a process that could take years.

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