What will jurors consider when deciding Trump’s fate? Legal experts weigh in

Legal experts tell Gustaf Kilander what the 12 jurors will be looking at as they decide whether to make history and convict a former US president on criminal charges

Friday 24 May 2024 20:13 BST
Former US president Donald Trump speaks alongside his attorney Todd Blanche during his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21 2024
Former US president Donald Trump speaks alongside his attorney Todd Blanche during his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21 2024 (via REUTERS)

After weeks of at times bombshell testimony, the fate of Donald Trump will soon be in the hands of the 12 New Yorkers chosen to sit on the jury in his first criminal trial.

Mr Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records over a $130,000 hush money payment, which was designed to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in the days before the 2016 election about an alleged affair she had with Mr Trump in 2006.

Prosecutors allege that Mr Trump’s former “fixer” Michael Cohen made the initial payment on behalf of his boss and Mr Trump then reimbursed him in a series of payments that were falsely labeled as “legal expenses” for a retainer that did not exist.

Mr Trump denies the charges and the sexual encounter with Ms Daniels.

Throughout the trial, the panel of jurors heard from a string of witnesses connected to the allegations, including both Ms Daniels and Cohen. Meanwhile, Mr Trump chose not to testify – despite toying with the idea for weeks.

The jury will get the case in the coming days after hearing closing arguments from both sides on Tuesday.

So what will the 12 jurors be looking at as they weigh the verdict and decide whether to make history and convict a former US president on criminal charges?

The Independent speaks to legal experts to find out:

Elements of the crimes

The key questions jurors will need to answer are: did the former president falsify business records and, if yes, did he do so in furtherance of another crime?

Attorney Duncan Levin, who worked at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office years before the case against Mr Trump, tells The Independent that jurors will be looking closely at whether the district attorney “has met its burden of proof and put in all of the elements of the crimes.”

Donald Trump in a court sketch during his hush money trial
Donald Trump in a court sketch during his hush money trial (REUTERS)

“The elements are that Mr Trump caused the filing of false business records,” he adds. “The other part is that he did it with the intent to conceal a conspiracy to promote his election by unlawful means.”

Mr Levin says that the “business records are false on their face.”

“There’s evidence that … the reimbursement to Michael Cohen was not for legal services, but was a reimbursement for the money sent over to Stormy Daniels and the figures were grossed up, meaning they were doubled for taxes, which shows the falsity because reimbursements would not be doubled,” he adds.

Cohen’s testimony the ‘centerpiece’ of the trial

For Steve Duffy, a jury consultant at Trial Behavior Consulting, tells The Independent that Cohen’s testimony – and how far the jury believes him – holds the key to the case.

Across several days on the stand, Cohen testified that he paid off Ms Daniels on behalf of Mr Trump and that he was reimbursed, with the payments fraudulently recorded.

But Cohen, a proven liar, also admitted in his testimony that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from the Trump Organization.

Under cross-examination, he was also confronted with some evidence that seemed to contradict previous things he had said at the trial.

That said, the often hot-headed Cohen kept his cool, saying that, yes, he had lied when he was working for Mr Trump but that now he’s telling the truth.

“Certainly, Cohen’s testimony is the centerpiece of the whole case,” says Mr Duffy, adding that much of the case “hinges on” how the jury “feels about Cohen.”

Michael Cohen leaves his home on his second day of testimony at Manhattan Criminal Court on 14 May
Michael Cohen leaves his home on his second day of testimony at Manhattan Criminal Court on 14 May (Getty Images)

“His credibility is, in many ways, the crucial issue,” he says.

“One of the unique things about the jury system, and one of the reasons it can be criticized, is [that] different groups of 12 people can do very different things.”

Mr Duffy adds that Mr Trump’s decision not to testify is “particularly interesting”, due to the former president’s affinity for verbally attacking anyone he deems a threat.

“I do think from a zero-sum perspective, the decision to not have him testify was the least bad of two evils,” he adds.

‘Very strong case’

Mr Levin says that other evidence in the case also lays out for jurors the prosecution’s case that the records were falsified in order to influence the 2016 election.

He points to the plot between the former National Enquirer boss David Pecker, Mr Trump and Cohen to silence Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story of an affair with Mr Trump.

Mr Levin says there’s plenty of evidence to show “that it was not being quieted down for personal reasons – it was quieted down so that it wouldn’t get out before the election.”

Text messages, emails, and videos all support “the conspiracy”, he says, adding: “I think it came out as a very strong case.”

Mr Duffy agrees that the volume of testimony and evidence of sheer “graft” as a strength for the prosecution.

“The whole thing is so sordid,” he adds. “It just reeks of corruption.”

Donald Trump appears in court during his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on 20 May
Donald Trump appears in court during his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on 20 May (Getty Images)

“I don’t think anybody could say honestly that it was above board,” Mr Duffy says. “Whether or not it violated these specific laws … is a more nuanced question. But I think the strength of the prosecution’s case is that the whole thing just reeks.”

He adds that the defense didn’t do “themselves any favors” by making the case as much about public relations as about “actually winning the case.”

Mr Levin, the former DA lawyer, says he has seen enough evidence to support the charges brought against Mr Trump.

The defense didn’t manage to establish “an alternative situation that explains the payments to Michael Cohen, or that it didn’t relate to an election, or that the documents weren’t falsified,” he says.

“There’s really nothing from the defense that undermines the charges, and the DA’s office put in a sufficient case.”

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