NEW YORK: The judge overseeing former US president Donald Trump’s criminal trial dismissed two jurors on Thursday, as lawyers struggled to assemble a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates for one of the most high-profile trials in American history.

Justice Juan Merchan excused one juror after prosecutors said he may not have disclosed prior brushes with the law. Merchan did not specify why he dismissed that juror.

The judge had previously excused a juror who said she felt intimidated because some personal information had been made public. She said family, friends and colleagues had contacted her after deducing she was on the jury.

“I don’t believe at this point that I can be fair and unbiased, and let the outside influences not affect my decision-making in the courtroom,” the juror said. The two removals mean that five people so far have been selected for the jury.

The decisions highlighted the extraordinary pressures around the first criminal trial ever of a former US president. Trump is one of the most controversial figures in American politics, and roughly half of the 192 potential jurors screened so far in heavily Democratic Manhattan have been dismissed after saying they could not impartially assess his guilt or innocence.

The Republican presidential candidate in the Nov 5 election is accused of covering up a $130,000 payment his former lawyer Michael Cohen made to porn star Stormy Daniels for her silence before the 2016 election about a sexual encounter she says they had a decade earlier.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and denies any such encounter with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

He has also pleaded not guilty in three other criminal cases against him in Washington, Georgia and Florida.

The New York trial could be the only one he faces before the election. A conviction would not bar Trump, the Republican presidential candidate in the Nov 5 election, from running for or taking office.

Trump says, without providing evidence, that all four criminal cases are part of a broad-ranging effort by allies of Democratic President Joe Biden to hobble his candidacy. Officials in some of those cases have reported receiving death threats and harassment after being criticised by Trump.

Merchan has taken steps to shield jurors in the case from harassment, saying they will remain anonymous except to Trump, his lawyers and prosecutors. On Thursday, he said he would prohibit news outlets from reporting on aspects of potential jurors’ employment.

He has also imposed a partial gag order on Trump, who has criticised him, witnesses, and prosecutors and their relatives. Prosecutors say Trump has violated the gag order seven times since they flagged three potential violations on Monday, and have asked Merchan to impose fines or other penalties.

On Thursday, prosecutor Christopher Conroy pointed to posts about former Trump attorney Cohen, who is expected to be a star prosecution witness, and a post saying undercover liberal activists had been lying to the judge to try to get on the jury.

One of Trump’s lawyers, Emil Bove, said those posts “do not establish any willful violations” of the gag order.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2024

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