FORT PIERCE, Fla. — He posts on social media for an audience of tens of millions and delivers speeches that have stretched for hours, veering off-script into diatribes that skewer his opponents and delight his supporters.
But after he raised the possibility this week that he could take the stand in his own defense in the four criminal cases he faces, Donald Trump could find himself staring down an audience made up not of his supporters but of 12 individual jurors who would hold his fate in their hands.
Just one person could hang a jury, acquitting the former president of the dozens of counts pooling around him.
It’s why E. Jean Carroll sought in the trial in her civil lawsuit against Trump to remove a juror who prosecutors said listened to a “notorious far-right” podcaster, according to unsealed court documents.
And it could be why several of Trump’s co-defendants in the Georgia case that charged him with trying to subvert the 2020 election moved to relocate it from Fulton County to federal court, where they could face a jury pool of people more likely to harbor friendlier political leanings.
“You’re going to get a better jury pool, possibly more conservative people, as opposed to a liberal jurisdiction like Fulton County,” former Georgia prosecutor Chris Timmons said.
The makeup of the panel is perhaps the earliest indicator of how the case will be decided and perhaps the last chance for the two sides to measurably shape a trial’s outcome.
“Once jury selection is done, the case is over,” said Lisa Blue Baron, a nationally renowned jury consultant and trial attorney.
The facts for Trump in the South Florida case are hardly in dispute — he has discussed keeping classified documents after leaving office.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers will largely ask jurors to decide whether Trump’s known actions violated the law — which could make each juror’s views on him even more relevant.
“The evidence is the evidence, but everyone sees it through their own filter,” said Blue Baron, who has a background as a forensic psychologist.
So central to a potential conviction is the impaneled jury that experts say there is little that can shake jurors loose from their intended verdict.
“The verdict hinges almost entirely on who is impaneled in this case,” said Geri Fischman, a trial consultant who specializes in juror behavior, who pointed to the pool attached to the Fort Pierce courthouse overseen by Aileen Cannon, a federal district judge whom Trump appointed to the bench in 2020.
Phil Reizenstein, a veteran Florida defense attorney and former Miami-Dade County prosecutor, said, “Pick the right juror, you’re going to win.”
Weighing the charges in the classified documents probe — in which Trump is accused of having violated the Espionage Act by retaining classified documents after he left the White House and conspiring to thwart federal investigators’ efforts to retrieve them — is an expected jury drawn from Fort Pierce and its surrounding counties, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by roughly 3 to 2, according to federal election data.
Fort Pierce, the seat of the smallest of the five divisions of Florida’s Southern District, draws its jurors from a handful of counties that heavily favored Trump in 2016 and 2020, except for one swing county.
“To be in the Fort Pierce courthouse is inherently a win for the defense team,” Fischman said.
In St. Lucie County, Trump won 50.4% of the vote — the closest contest compared to Highlands County (67%), Indian River County (60%), Martin County (62%) and Okeechobee County (72%).
“President Trump Fort Pierce Welcomes You,” read the highway-side sign of the Dirty Martini, a sunbaked watering hole pitched on the town’s fringe, on the day of a routine hearing Trump wasn’t scheduled to attend.
Jurors are known to defy expectations, even when they concern Trump, whose base of support has stood by him as his legal perils compound.
Taking the stand is one way for a defendant to throw a wrench into the defense’s best-laid plans.
“It’s potentially suicide for any criminal defendant,” said Tim Parlatore, an attorney for Trump who advised him in the Florida documents case before he left the defense team this year. “It comes down to jury selection.”
And the panel could convict Trump in spite of any political sympathies.
In the Carroll case, the juror Carroll’s attorneys sought to strike ultimately joined eight others in delivering a unanimous verdict to convict Trump — charges the conservative podcaster the juror listened to has questioned on his show, according to a legal filing.
In the trial of Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, a self-identified Trump supporter left her red “Make America Great Again” hat in the car when she arrived at court to serve on the jury. Politics shouldn’t play any part in a verdict, she said in an interview after the trial in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2018. But despite the juror’s doubts about the investigation, she said she would have voted to convict Manafort on every count, but a lone holdout on the panel split the jury, which convicted Manafort on only some of the charges.
“It was so frustrating,” the juror said, adding that the holdout “just couldn’t explain to us why she had reasonable doubt. We could provide her with the information, but she wouldn’t change her votes.”
Before Cannon, the judge in the Florida documents case, set a trial date of May, federal prosecutors made the case that Trump should be treated like any other criminal defendant and face an expeditious timeline, even as his defense attorneys sought to postpone the trial until after the 2024 presidential election, arguing that the scope of the indictment made the timeline “untenable.”
But Fischman said Trump’s footprint was impossible to ignore, a factor that surfaced in interviews with people who could find themselves weighing whether his actions fit the elements of the crime and whether they believe the evidence.
“He is the public figure of all public figures,” Fischman said. “This feels like the Super Bowl of juror decision-making.”
The logistics of the trial, which is scheduled to follow a civil fraud lawsuit against Trump in New York, a defamation case involving Carroll and Trump’s criminal election interference case, threaten to bottleneck the South Florida town figuratively and literally once deliberations kick off in May.
The composition of the ultimate jury pool remains unknown — future jurors won’t receive summonses until closer to the trial date.
Several people who live in the district and spoke with NBC News said they didn’t want to go on the record with views critical of Trump, fearing that doing so would disrupt their personal relationships. Some said they weren’t sure that Fort Pierce, a town The New York Times has called a “scruffy outpost,” was equipped to handle the swell of outsiders expected to converge next year.
Others worried Trump’s power and celebrity would help him evade charges.
Adreion Moorer, 23, said he was skeptical Trump would be held to account, even as court documents claimed that a maintenance worker at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach club, told another employee that “the boss” wanted security video deleted as authorities sought to retrieve it.
“All the evidence that’s against him? I believe he still will get off, because he’s Donald Trump,” Moorer said. “How can you let people get away with it? Just because he’s the former president. If the documents get into the wrong hands, America is in trouble.
“If they don’t send this man to jail, it’s going to be a problem,” he added.
Lee Harris, 19, of Fort Pierce, said he was hopeful Trump could be tried fairly. Still, he said, “Honestly, I think he deserves it.”
Evan Sturgill, 25, a Fort Pierce resident who said he is no fan of Trump, joked, “I’m looking forward to the riots.” Sturgill described the town he grew up in as being divided by income and race, divisions he said the case would further expose.
That’s not counting the thinking that sometimes support for Trump is under-polled, said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney for Southern Florida and a member of the legal team that represented Al Gore during the Florida ballot recount in the 2020 presidential election.
A Palm Beach trial attorney, who asked to remain anonymous, said that in a district that leans Trump, prosecutors could “run out of strikes before you run out of Trumplicans.”
Said South Florida criminal defense attorney and former Justice Department prosecutor Andrew Lourie: “One of the biggest challenges to the government in both of these cases is going to be the jury and not putting people on the jury that are going to side with Trump no matter what the evidence is — like juror nullification, where they’re not going to rule against him for whatever reason, either because they love him or because they think that this is unfair because they’re treating him differently.”
He added, “The idea that even if there’s proof and they agree that he violated the statute, they’ll find a way to vote against an indictment, and that will just hang the jury.”
In Georgia, where some of Trump’s co-defendants have sought a venue change, defendants must meet a high bar to score one, said Joe Whitley, a former acting U.S. associate attorney general and U.S. attorney in Georgia’s Middle and then Northern federal districts. But Whitley said Trump faces challenging odds if he is tried in deep-blue Fulton County.
“I think approximately 75% of the people that voted voted for Joe Biden here,” Whitley said of Fulton County, where District Attorney Fani Willis brought the case. “That’s a concern.”
In July, Trump was denied a bid to move his hush-money payments case to a federal court in New York.
A factor that could shift the balance would be if Trump were to take the stand, some said.
“The only thing that could change this is if Trump testifies,” said Robert Hirschhorn, an attorney and jury selection expert who helped pick the Texas jury in the Robert Durst case.
Coffey said, “Key is whether Trump will take the stand.”
In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Trump said last week that he intends to take the stand in his own defense — though he didn’t say in which case. “Oh, yes, absolutely,” Trump said when he was asked whether he would testify.
Even so, Trump may not need such a radical measure. “Really, all he needs is one juror,” said Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney for Southern Florida, who was one of three federal prosecutors who helped convict former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega of racketeering, drug smuggling and money laundering charges in 1992.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com
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