Judge in Avenatti-Stormy Daniels trial warns would-be jurors

NEW YORK (AP) — The judge presiding over Michael Avenatti’s trial on charges he cheated porn star Stormy Daniels of book deal proceeds twice warned prospective jurors Thursday that perjury charges could result if they don’t honestly fill out a written questionnaire, after a recent trial verdict was jeopardized by a juror’s comments about his questionnaire.

U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman included the mentions of perjury as he launched jury selection for the trial of the once high-profile California lawyer who has already been convicted in a separate trial of trying to extort up to $25 million from sportswear giant Nike. The jurors then stood and were sworn in.

Verbal questioning of prospective jurors is scheduled to occur next week and openings statements by lawyers is slated for Jan. 24.

Avenatti, who is confined to a California residence while awaiting trial, participated in a pretrial conference Thursday by telephone before Furman left his courtroom with prosecutors and defense lawyers to explain the case to prospective jurors before they filled out questionnaires.

Among 90 questions, prospective jurors were asked whether they’d formed opinions about Avenatti or Daniels based on anything they’d heard or read about them.

Avenatti gained fame and political clout in 2018 as he represented Daniels in lawsuits against then-President Donald Trump and appeared frequently on cable television news programs. At one point, he even speculated that he might run for president himself.

But he was charged months later in the Nike case in New York and in Los Angeles, where he was accused of cheating clients of millions of dollars. Convicted in early 2020, Avenatti has yet to serve his 2 1/2 -year prison sentence. His first California trial ended in a mistrial.

Avenatti’s lawyers say he is likely to testify at the Daniels trial, where he is accused of cheating her of several hundred thousand dollars. He has pleaded not guilty.

Furman noted the importance of answering questions honestly just a week after British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell’s conviction late last month was thrown into question. The unidentified juror who spoke in several media interviews has retained a lawyer as the judge in the case and lawyers on both sides contemplate what to do.

The juror said in media interviews that he “flew through” the trial’s questionnaire and didn’t recall being asked if he’d been a sex abuse victim. He said he told the other jurors that he suffered sexual abuse as a child, and he convinced other jurors that a victim’s imperfect memory of sex abuse doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Defense lawyers say the remarks warrant a new trial for Maxwell, 60, who was convicted of charges including sex trafficking and conspiracy. No sentencing date was set.

Furman also reassured more than 100 prospective jurors, spaced apart in large courthouse assembly rooms, that they may be chosen for a trial projected to last up to a month in a courthouse that has safely hosted over 100 trials since the pandemic began.

In an interview, Southern District Executive Edward Friedland said two Manhattan federal courthouses have continued to operate during the latest coronavirus, as the omicron variant rampages across the nation.

He cited the effectiveness of specially equipped courtrooms that permit witnesses and lawyers to speak without masks in see-through boxes with air filters, and large courtrooms reconfigured to serve as rooms for jurors to deliberate.

“We’ve done 102 trials without any problem,” Friedland said. “We’ve had no spread of COVID during any trials.”

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