Hush money judge cracks down on media over juror fears of being exposed

NEW YORK — Reporters covering former President Trump’s New York criminal trial were admonished Thursday by the judge overseeing it following the dismissal of a seated juror who expressed frustration about the case’s extensive media coverage.

The snag led Justice Juan Merchan to direct the press to stop reporting prospective jurors’ employers and physical characteristics after several outlets published stories describing those selected, with those details having been relayed in open court.

Another selected juror was dismissed soon after for apparently unrelated reasons, but they, too, expressed frustrations to the judge about the public attention.

“We just lost, probably, what probably would have been a very good juror for this case, and the first thing that she said was she was afraid and intimidated by the press, all the press, and everything that had happened,” Merchan said to reporters.

“So really this is just a matter of common sense, and I ask you to please follow that,” the judge continued.

The loss of the jurors marked a temporary setback, but the process recovered hours later when the full jury of 12 New Yorkers — and the first alternate — were seated at the very end of the trial’s third day.

Merchan indicated he expects the process to finish Friday after the remaining five alternates are selected.

The admonishment underscored the difficulty of selecting a jury in the high-profile case, where information the public receives is largely limited to what reporters publish. No cameras are allowed inside the courtroom, except for a few minutes at the start of each day to capture the scene.

Trump’s New York trial marks his first criminal case and the first time a former U.S. president has stood trial on criminal charges. Trump is accused of falsifying business records in connection to a hush money deal made with an adult film actress ahead of the 2016 election. He pleaded not guilty and has insisted the records were truthful.

The judge previously ordered for an anonymous jury in the historic trial to protect the New Yorkers’ safety, like Trump’s two civil jury trials that took place the past year.

But unlike those trials, Merchan’s questionnaire for prospective jurors included prompts asking them about their current and past employers. The questions, among others, prompted the New Yorkers in open court to provide rather specific details about their lives.

The former president has historically lodged attacks against people involved in his case, sometimes resulting in threats to their safety.

The first juror dismissed Thursday expressed concern about her ability to be impartial after she said she received questions from friends, family and colleagues about whether she was selected for Trump’s jury based on media reports.

“I don’t believe at this point that I can be fair and unbiased and let the outside influences not affect my decisionmaking in the courtroom,” the woman said.

The judge responded, “Thank you. I am sorry that you went through that.”

The second juror dismissed, also selected a day prior, had a more complicated story. Prosecutors flagged to the judge that they found an article describing a person of the same name being arrested in the 1990s and evidence that the juror’s wife was previously involved in a corruption inquiry.

All jurors were asked as part of a 42-question survey whether they or someone close to them had ever been accused or convicted of a crime. The district attorney’s office suggested the juror may have lied on that question.

The juror was interviewed a second time at the judge’s bench, out of earshot from reporters inside the courtroom. However, those journalists noted that most questions appeared to come from the prosecution side, and a few answers drew laughter from Trump attorney Todd Blanche.

Once the sidebar ended, Merchan appeared to sternly address the juror and shortly after, dismissed him. The judge did not address the reason but indicated that the juror “expressed annoyance” about the extent of information published about him.

News organizations this week have published varying degrees of detail about who is serving on the panel. The Hill published some details Merchan took issue with but had opted to hold back certain information to keep jurors’ identities anonymous.

The judge did not take aim at any specific outlet on Thursday, but he said the press generally had gone too far, calling it a “problem” and effectively imposing a gag order on journalists covering the trial.

“There is a reason why this is an anonymous jury and why we have taken the measures that we have taken, and it kind of defeats the purpose of that when so much information is put out there that it is very, very easy for anyone to identify who the jurors are,” Merchan said.

New York state law around media coverage of the courts is among the strictest in the country. It’s one of two states that still bars the use of cameras in the courtroom.

Because of that, any information that emerges within the courtroom where Trump’s historic trial is being held must be relayed secondhand, through reporters, to the public.

Merchan said that the press can “write about anything that’s said on the record,” but advised reporters to apply “common sense.”

“If you can’t do that, if we can’t stick to that, we will have to see what else we need to do to ensure that the jurors remain safe,” Merchan added.

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