Trump on trial: Why jury selection should take longer in Georgia

A dozen jurors and six alternates seated over five days in Manhattan trial

The speed with which a jury was seated in the New York prosecution of Donald Trump likely won’t be matched in his yet-to-be-scheduled criminal trial in Fulton County, legal experts say.

Over just five days, a dozen jurors and six alternates were selected in Manhattan where the former president faces 34 felony charges, accused of falsifying business records in an attempt to cover up an alleged sex scandal. It is the first criminal trial against a former president and the first of four that Trump faces.

Atlanta attorneys and law professors who are closely following the Trump cases say there are several reasons why jury selection in the election subversion case before Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee is likely to take longer than a week. They include multiple defendants, a lengthy trial and a different jury selection process.

Number of defendants

In Georgia, Trump is one of 15 remaining defendants facing trial on a range of criminal charges, including those brought under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act. In the New York hush money case, Trump is the only defendant.

“Having multiple defendants is going to complicate really every step of the proceedings, including jury selection,” said Andrew Jennings, a professor at Emory University School of Law. “When it comes to participating in the (jury selection) process, you’re going to have as many defense attorneys as there are defendants, and so more cooks in the kitchen will definitely slow down the process.”

It is widely expected that Trump and his co-defendants won’t all end up going to trial at the same time. Already four have pleaded guilty in the Georgia election case. But even a handful of co-defendants can complicate things.

When jury selection began at the start of 2023 in the racketeering prosecution of rapper Young Thug and his “Young Slime Life” associates there were 14 defendants. Just six remained on trial after a jury was seated in November, as others had taken plea deals or had their cases severed. Still, jury selection took 10 months in the YSL case.

It took more than six weeks to select a jury in the the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial in 2014. Twelve people were changed in that racketeering case, which was spearheaded by then Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Fani Willis.

Trial length

The Trump trial in New York is expected to last six to eight weeks. Fulton prosecutors estimated their election case would take roughly four months to try in court and require testimony from about 150 witnesses. That doesn’t include time for the defense to cross-examine witnesses and make their case.

A major hurdle to selecting jurors in the YSL trial was its anticipated length, from six months to one year, which presented a hardship for hundreds of people with work and other commitments.

Fulton County Chief Judge Ural Glanville listens as Brian Steel, defense attorney for rapper Jeffery Williams, also known as Young Thug, argues a motion to disqualify lead prosecutor Adriane Love from the YSL case on Thursday, April 4, 2024.  AJC File

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Attorney Jeff Douglass, who heads litigation at Morris Manning & Martin, said the charges that Trump faces in Manhattan aren’t as complicated as those brought against him under Georgia’s racketeering law. He said the Trump case in Atlanta “will be a little more of an apples-to-apples comparison to what we’ve been seeing in the YSL case.”

In that case, “you have a number of defendants, you’ve got these incredibly complex claims, and you’ve got a trial that’s expected to last a very long time,” he said.

“I think that in the Trump RICO case in Georgia, you are going to see some of the same issues that we saw in the YSL jury selection,” Douglass said. “It will be interesting to see if Judge McAfee takes anything away from how it was done in the YSL case.”

Jennings, whose specialties include white-collar crime, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Manhattan trial takes longer than expected, as Trump is far from a typical defendant.

“I suspect that there might be some twists or turns in the case,” he said. “Already the court has had to schedule a hearing regarding potential gag-order violations by the defendant.”

Jury selection process

One thing that sped up selection in New York was the judge’s decision to allow dozens of jurors to opt out without much questioning.

In the first group of 96 jurors who entered the courtroom, for instance, about half raised their hands when asked if they could not be impartial in weighing the case against the former president. They were dismissed.

That’s not typical, Jennings said.

“Typically a conflict or a bias issue that a juror asserts might be subjected to a bit more testing,” he said.

Chris Timmons, a trial attorney who teaches jury selection at Georgia State University College of Law, said a lack of probing for the sake of efficiency can narrow a jury’s diversity.

“If you get rid of everybody that says that they can’t serve on first blush, then you’re not going to get a representative sample of the community,” he said. “You end up with folks that are unemployed, or retired or work for corporations that are able to absorb losing somebody for a long period of time.”

After the initial culling, the prosecutors and defense attorneys in Trump’s Manhattan case considered prospective jurors one at a time to decide whether to use their limited opportunities to strike a juror without knowing who would be next in line, Douglass said. That also sped up the selection process, he said, because neither side wanted to waste their juror challenges in case a “worse” candidate emerged.

Timmons, a partner at Knowles Gallant Timmons, said McAfee has already indicated that he’s inclined to give Fulton prosecutors and defense attorneys an hour each in which to question prospective jurors by the dozen.

Jennings, Douglass and Timmons said the lawyers in each of the Trump trials should be mindful that some prospective jurors may have a strong interest in being selected. Some jurors may be “hell-bent” on seeing Trump either convicted or acquitted, while others may hope for a book deal based on their involvement in such a high-profile case, Timmons said.

“I think there’s a strong risk of a hung jury (in the Trump cases), because he is so divisive,” Timmons said.